* the creation of an Alberta office in Washington, D. C. to advance the province's interests on issues such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE);
* a Life Sciences Institute to coordinate research taking place across the province in areas such as agriculture, environment, health and water research.
The speech also confirmed the Government's ongoing commitment to the fiscal principles of the Sustainability Fund and to continued debt reduction. (Since 2003, year-end surpluses are deposited into the Alberta Sustainability Fund. Withdrawals from the Fund can only be made if revenue from non-renewable resources is less than $3.5 billion.)
At the time of writing, 30 Government Bills, 1 Private Members' Public Bill and 4 Private Bills had been passed by the Assembly.
Some of the Bills passed during the Spring Sitting include:
* Bill 1, Alberta Centennial Education Savings Plan Act, establishes the Alberta Centennial Education Savings Plan. Under the plan the Government will contribute $500 to a registered education savings plan for every child born to or adopted by an Alberta family beginning in 2005, provided that the parents open a registered education savings plan in the child's name. Additional contributions will be made by the Government at ages eight, 11, and 14, as long as the contributions are matched. The Bill received some criticism from both a Government Private Member and some Opposition Members who argued about the fairness of the application of the legislation only to children born in 2005 and after.
* Bill 7, Senatorial Selection Amendment Act, 2004, amends the current Act which expires at the end if this year. The Bill extends the Act to December 31, 2010. This allows the Alberta Government to hold Senate elections beyond 2004.
* Bill 22, Election Statutes Amendment Act, 2004. This Bin makes numerous amendments to four Acts: the Election Act, the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, the Alberta Personal Income Tax Act, and the Alberta Corporate Tax Act. These amendments are based on recommendations made by Alberta's Chief Electoral Officer. In addition to minor housekeeping matters, the Bill has measures to ensure the accuracy of elector information, protect elector privacy, and improve flexibility in the use of special ballots in advance polls. The Bill also amends contribution limits for both individual candidates from $1,500 to $2,000 and candidates of registered parties from $7,500 to $10,000. Contribution limits for individual constituency associations will be increased from $750 to $1,000. As well, limits for party constituency associations will be increased from $3,750 to $5,000. The Opposition expressed some reservations with these increases, particularly the increase from $200 to $500 in a candidate's nomination deposit. They argued that this would discourage candidates from participating in elections. Other concerns were expressed with regard to unique identifier numbers which would allow the Chief Electoral Officer to assign to electors a unique and permanent identifier number to be used to assist in distinguishing an elector from another or to verify their information. The Opposition expressed the view there was no need for this identifier and questioned whether it would lead to Internet voting. One provision supported by the Opposition was the amendment improving the use of special ballots in advance polls.
Private Members' Business
The issue of Private Members' Business has led to some discussion in the Assembly as to the priority of various items in the area. In Alberta, Private Members' Business is dealt with on Monday afternoons following the daily routine and from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday evenings. The time allocated in the afternoon is set aside for Written Questions and Motions for Returns followed by Private Members' Public Bills. The first hour of the evening is devoted to Motions Other Than Government Motions. As a result of a significant number of Written Questions and Motions for Returns being placed on the Order Paper by Opposition Members, very little time has been available to debate Private Members' Public Bills.
Private Members' Public Bills
One Private Members' Bill was passed during the Spring Sitting at the time of writing.
* Bill 201, Safety Codes (Barrier-free Design and Access) Amendment Act, 2004, sponsored by Rob Lougheed (PC, Clover Bar-Fort Saskatchewan), amends the Safety Codes Act by enabling the creation of a new barrier-free design and access council as part of the Safety Codes Council. The Bill also provides an opportunity for input regarding safety codes for persons with disabilities. It comes into force June 1, 2004.
Other Private Members' Public Bills on the Order Paper include:
* Bill 204, Blood Samples Act, sponsored by Thomas Lukaszuk (PC, Edmonton-Castle Downs), creates a process which would allow a qualified medical practitioner to take a mandatory blood sample from someone whose bodily fluids have come in contact with police officers, firefighters, correctional officers, front-line emergency workers, good Samaritans, or health care workers. The blood sample may only be taken from someone who refuses to comply voluntarily and cannot be used in a criminal proceeding. The Bill also includes provisions protecting the privacy of the test.
* Bill 206, Alberta Wheat and Barley Test Market Amendment Act, 2004, introduced by Mark Hlady (PC, Calgary-Mountain View), would amend the existing Act by providing for the establishment of a 10-year Alberta test market for wheat and barley on a date set by the Lieutenant Governor in Council if the Governments of Alberta and Canada do not reach an agreement for the establishment of a test market. The Bill would provide Alberta producers with an alternative to the Canadian Wheat Board.
One Private Bill which has received significant public attention is Bill Pr5, Brooklyn Hannah George Rewega Right of Civil Action Act. The Bill, which has been referred to the Private Bills Committee, would allow a husband to sue his wife on behalf of their daughter. The daughter, who is three years old, is alleged to have suffered brain damage and blindness as a result of a single vehicle accident which occurred when her mother was pregnant. At the time of the accident, the mother was driving a vehicle registered and insured by her husband's parents. The Bill would allow the father, on behalf of the child, to bring a civil action against the mother for damages arising from the accident. Such an action is prohibited by the common law. A 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision called Dobson clarifies that there is immunity for mothers for wrongful prenatal conduct. The Committee heard submissions from the petitioner's lawyer, the lawyer representing the defendants, as well as the Department of Justice. The lawyer representing the defendants made submissions to the Committee opposing the Bill. Similarly, the Department of Justice also voiced concerns regarding this Bill. The Committee, which last met on April 27, 2002 has decided to defer their deliberations on the Bill until the Fall Sitting.
On March 24, 2004, Patricia Nelson, the Minister of Finance, presented the Budget and estimates for the 2004-05 fiscal year.
Revenue for the 2004-05 fiscal year is estimated to be just under $23 billion and total resource revenue is expected to be $4.8 billion. The Minister projected total expenditures of $22.6 billion in 2004-05 which includes an increase of 6.1 per cent in operating expenditures for Government programmes and services. The Budget increases the base budget for the Department of Health and Wellness to $8 billion, an increase of 8.4 per cent. The Department of Learning (responsible for primary, secondary and post-secondary education) will see a budget increase of 5.7 per cent to $5.3 billion. (An additional $216 million will be allocated for basic education as well as another $85 million to fund colleges, technical institutes, universities, and apprenticeship programs.) Funding for Transportation programs will be increased to $1.0 billion and Infrastructure program expenditures are estimated to surpass $1.5 billion.
Other elements of Budget 2004 include:
* a decrease in the general corporate tax rate from 12.5 per cent to 11.5 per cent;
* a reduction in small business tax rates from 4 per cent to 3 per cent;
* a decrease of 2.3 per cent in school property tax rates;
* a projected economic growth rate of 3.6 per cent which is estimated to account for 43,000 new jobs;
* the assumption that prices will be $26.00 US a barrel for oil and $4.20 Cdn per thousand cubic feet for natural gas;
The Finance Minister estimated that Alberta's accumulated debt will stand at just under $3 billion at the end of the fiscal year.
Select Special Committee
On April 22, 2004, the Legislative Assembly approved a motion to appoint a Select Special Health Information Act Review Committee to review the Health Information Act. The all-party committee must submit its report, including any proposed amendments to the Act, within one year of commencing its review. Broyce Jacobs (PC, Cardston--Taber--Warner) will chair the committee.
Dr. Kevin Taft (Lib, Edmonton-Riverview) was elected Leader of the Liberal Party on March 27, 2004. Speaker Kowalski recognized him as Leader of the Official Opposition in the Assembly on March 29, 2004 following the resignation of the Interim Leader of the Official Opposition, Dr. Don Massey (Lib, Edmonton-Mill Woods).
On March 16, 2004, Speaker Ken Kowalski hosted a ceremony in the Legislature Building Rotunda recognizing Alberta's francophone community. Marking its 6th year, Les Rendez-vous de la Francophonie is a celebration of the province's French culture and history. Joining Speaker Kowalski during the recognition ceremony were Gene Zwozdesky, Minister of Community Development; Don Massey, MLA, Interim Leader of the Official Opposition; Raj Pannu, MLA, Leader of the New Democrat Opposition; Ernest Chauvet, President, Canadian Francophone Association of Alberta; and Denis Ducharme, (PC, Bonnyville-Cold Lake, Chair, Francophone Secretariat.
The second session of the second annual Mr. Speaker's MLA for a Day took place on April 20 and 21, 2004. Twenty-eight students from across AlBerta participated in the programme which is designed to give Alberta high school students the chance to find out what it really means to be an MLA. Through conversations with MLAs and participation in a two day program, students find out how MLAs act as lawmakers and community representatives. The Legislative Assembly is proud to be in partnership with the Royal Canadian Legion, Alberta NWT Command, who sponsor and assist with the program.