P.E.I.’s spring legislative sitting, originally planned as an emergency sitting, has ended after 28 days, having strayed from its original intent to deal only with COVID-19 related matters.
In all, 15 bills were passed during the 28-day sitting, including appropriations bills related to the 2020-21 operating budget. This budget projects a $173-million deficit this year, due largely to COVID-19 related to spending and reduced revenue. The budget included significant increases in spending on programs for low-income Islanders, but also included income tax cuts and cuts for small businesses.
Three confidence motions were passed on Tuesday night with no dissenting votes from either the Opposition Liberals or Greens.
"The fact that all of the spending bills were unanimous should give Islanders comfort that all the members of this legislature are doing the best they can to look out for their best interests," King said.
Speaking to the media after the close of the legislature, Premier Dennis King said that all members realized the importance of the spending items contained in the budget.
King said that staff of the Department of Finance effectively had to redo the 2020-21 budget entirely from scratch after the pandemic began in March.
"After the initial impacts of COVID, when we knew we needed to make necessary investments, we knew that this wasn't the time for austerity," King said of the deficit budget.
"This is the biggest deficit for one year in the history of P.E.I. But the times called for that."
The session was initially planned as an emergency sitting and was expected to last only a few days. In the end, the 28-day sitting focused on several non-emergency matters, including reviewing the sitting hours of MLAs and several non-binding motions introduced by the Opposition Greens.
Six such motions, five from the Greens and one from the Liberals, passed over the course of the sitting.
Aside from bills involving financial matters, the government passed the two pieces of legislation focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. One altered labour legislation, allowing workers to take unpaid sick leave if they were required to self-isolate due to COVID-19.
Another altered the province’s Public Health Act, granting public health officials more power to make decisions relating to travel restrictions to and from P.E.I.
All three parties also unanimously approved the appointment of three new Independent Officers of government – the Auditor General, the Child and Youth Advocate and the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
A key piece of the government’s legislative agenda was halted by the opposition parties. A bill amending the province’s Emergency Measures Act would have granted executive council expanded powers during a state of emergency, including the ability to change existing laws. Such changes would normally have had to be introduced in the legislative assembly.
The bill was eventually referred to an all-party standing committee, which recommended against the adoption Emergency Measures Act changes. The committee’s report said the legislature could be recalled for emergency matters.
Speaking to media, King said he would abide by the committee’s recommendations.
"If there is a second wave, if we're forced to declare a state of emergency and we are presented again with these situations, we will call an emergency sitting," King said.
The Opposition Greens introduced three bills that were passed. One will see more legal protections for victims of non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Another allowed the province’s auditor general expanded powers to audit corporations that receive government funds. A third bill altered the Employment Standards Act to grant more whistleblower protections for workers.
The Liberal Opposition introduced one bill that was passed, which changed the name of the St. Thomas D’Aquin Society to the Société acadienne et francophone de l’Île-du-Prince Édouard.
A motion introduced by MLA Heath MacDonald, calling on government to provide and economic and fiscal update in September of 2020 also passed.
Liberal interim leader Sonny Gallant said his caucus also held the PC government to account.
"Our goal was to talk to the government, and focus on the economy in this crisis, and of course the healthcare of all Islanders. And we feel we did that during this session," Gallant said on Tuesday.
When asked why there were no votes from the Liberal caucus against the operating budget, despite frequent criticism from the party during Question Period, Gallant said the King government “did their best” with the budget.
"We listened to the budget. We asked questions. And we felt that it's passed now and we'll see how government works going forward," he said.
One matter originally considered to be of key importance at the beginning of the session remains unresolved. A standing committee was tasked with coming up with recommendations related to setting up "virtual sittings" of the legislative assembly.
In the end, the committee determined that these recommendations relating to a legislative sitting would not be complete before November of 2020.
- 'An intense process': Committee nixes giving P.E.I. government emergency powers
- P.E.I. budget projects $172.7 million deficit
- Emergency cabinet powers under the microscope in P.E.I.
- P.E.I. passes labour law changes allowing for self-isolation sick leave
- Evening sittings of P.E.I. legislature to end, as all-party recommendations adopted
- New auditor general, privacy commissioner and child and youth advocate appointed in P.E.I.
- P.E.I. legislature to resume sitting May 26
- P.E.I. legislature opening postponed because of coronavirus