Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Political Games, A Lacking Budget, Attacks on Medicare, and the Audacity of Rob Norris

Source: CBC News: Opposition Accused of 'Double-Dipping'
Source: CBC News: Budget Increase to Schools Too Slight: Critics
Source: CBC News: Province Plans to Reduce Surgery Backlog
Source: NewsTalk 650: Province Will Ignore International Labour Ruling

Another day, and a whole bunch of new provincial events to talk about.

I would be remiss, if I did not talk about the first source issue I have mentioned. The Saskatchewan Party Government, through MLA Bill Boyd, announced today that Provincial NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter was 'double-dipping'. Double-dipping refers to the process of collecting a provincial pension, while at the same time collecting a salary from the Saskatchewan taxpayers.

Mr. Lingenfelter has said that he talked to administrators about what could be done in regards to the pension payments, but was told that there was no system in place for stopping the payments. As such, Mr. Lingenfelter went on to say that his pension comes from both his own contributions to the pension plan and the taxpayer purse; and furthermore that he has been dividing his pension payments, keeping the amount which he paid into the system while turning over the taxpayer amount to charity.

Of course, the Saskatchewan Party has said that this solution is not good enough, and that the opposition should be working with them to draft and pass legislation which would prevent MLAs from double-dipping in the future.

Now, I suppose this deserves some exploration.

Obviously, as a former MLA and Cabinet Minister, Mr. Lingenfelter was paying into a provincial pension plan. When Mr. Lingenfelter retired from provincial politics, he became able to draw from his pension plan. Then of course, he re-entered politics nine years later.

Now, as Mr. Lingenfelter has said, there is no program in place for pension payments to stop being paid out to an individual. After all, if another pensioner re-enters the workforce after retiring, they still receive their pension payment as well as a paycheque from their current employer. So, where is the problem here?

Mr. Lingenfelter is entitled to his pension benefits, as he paid into the system when he first served in politics. He is also entitled to his salary as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, given that he was elected by the people of Regina-Douglas Park to represent them in the Legislature. So, we have two payments which are entitled to Mr. Lingenfelter because of his service to province.

So, the problem becomes one of whether or not there really is a problem? Legally, there isn't, since both payments are entitled to Mr. Lingenfelter. But, the Saskatchewan Party is obviously attempting to draw some attention away from their recent troubles and mistakes (Such as Finance Minister Gantefoer talking about a possible HST debate coming soon, before quickly saying he was taken out of context) and making this seem like something that shouldn't be occurring.

As such, if a bill is drafted to prevent 'double-dipping' as it is called, it needs to address a number of issues. Mr. Lingenfelter, as I've said, is entitled to both his pension and his salary. So, if a bill is drafted that prevents him and future MLAs from collecting pensions while serving in the Legislative Assembly, it needs to address what happens to payments that should have been made while the MLA is serving. Does their pension stop? Do payments accrue while they are serving as a MLA, which effectively means any missed payment they were not given would simply be paid out after they are no longer a MLA?

Obviously, since there is entitlement to this system (given that the MLA paid into the system) they would have to be given the payments they were supposed to receive. As such, a MLA will still be paid out the pension funds they were supposed to receive, but didn't because they were serving as an MLA. As such, this simply doesn't prevent 'double-dipping' but basically puts it off until the MLA is no longer an MLA.

Effectively, this is a non-issue that the Saskatchewan Party is hoping will become a major issue. If this was not about the Leader of the Opposition, but say average pensioners going back to work and receiving their benefits and a paycheque, the Saskatchewan Party wouldn't have even bothered to mention it. This is a simple political game the Saskatchewan Party is hoping to use to rally some support against the NDP while taking the focus off of them for awhile. Hopefully, Saskatchewan residents realize that there is no real issue here.

Moving along, Saskatchewan School Boards have come forward and announced that the recent Saskatchewan budget does not provide enough funding for primary and secondary education in the province.

In the budget, the Saskatchewan Party Government earmarked $33 million dollars for education within the province; while the number sounds initially impressive, the total increase in education spending is effectively a 1% increase in budgeting from last year, a figure School Boards are saying does not account for inflation and increases in spending.

The President of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association has stated that this lack of a significant increase will likely mean that Saskatchewan Schools will have to either put off the purchase of new buses, or decrease their staff; possibly both.

Of course, this new development is nothing new in the Saskatchewan Party's mishandling of the education portfolio. Since the Saskatchewan Party came to power, we've heard of numerous issues in education that have been troubling. The lack of adequate infrastructure in schools (such as the shortage of rooms in communities like Warman); the difference in funding between the public and separate school divisions; the rumours of massive cuts to Educational Assistants in classrooms; the removal of funding for schools by decreasing the Education Property Tax; and numerous other issues which have come up in regards to education.

It is pretty obvious that the Saskatchewan Party really has no sound plan for education in this province. The mounting problems have shown that the Sask Party is doing nothing to secure the future of our province, by ensuring that our young people have access to the facilities and help needed in primary and secondary education to ensure that an individual is given access to a well-rounded education.

Obviously, this is not acceptable. Our schools, public and separate, need our help to ensure that our children have access to not only facilities which can accommodate, but to teachers and educational assistants and other educational specialists that ensure our children are being well taught and looked after while in the education system. The Wall Government has failed on this front, and shows no sign of planning to reverse the trend.

And now, surprisingly, we're seeing the Wall Government threaten our medicare system. The Saskatchewan Party announced that they're willing to pay for 3,000 surgeries and 2,500 extra CT scans this year; but they will provide that funding to have the procedures performed through private clinics.

Don McMorris, the health minister, has attempted to explain this by saying the recommendation comes from a panel of doctors and patients, who were formed with the purpose of finding ways to reduce medical wait times in the province.

The NDP has responded, quite rightly, by saying that these extra procedures should not be performed in a secondary system, but rather the budgets $10.5 million for the program should be used within the existing system.

Obviously, this is a better answer. An investment of $10.5 million into our existing system could go towards numerous programs which could also reduce wait times with the province. For example, the money could be spent on upgrading equipment within the province in key health regions; such as the purchase of new MRI machines and other equipment. The money could also be spent on health initiatives at a University level; to provide a funding grant that would help medical students with their high tuition costs, at the exchange of a commitment of time within our province.

There are numerous other solutions that the Wall Government could explore, all while keeping this $10.5 million dollar investment within the current public system. So, if there are all these answers, why would they be so dead set on exploring a second, private option?

The answer is very simple: This "one time" exploration is a litmus test for the province. If Saskatchewan residents do not get outraged at the idea of private medical investment, then it is carte blanche for the Wall Government to attempt further investment in the future; and investment which might be further detrimental to Saskatchewan's public medicare system.

This is the first step towards a two-tier system. While we're still paying as taxpayers, how long will it be until these private clinics accept payments from individuals in exchange for their services? How long will it be until these private clinics allow these individuals to jump ahead in the queue according to who opens their chequebooks with the largest amount? The answer, is not very long.

We must stand up as Saskatchewan residents and insist that the Wall Government back down on this plan, and instead invest in Saskatchewan's existing public health care system.

And finally for today, our 'illustrious' Minister of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour Rob Norris announced today that recommendations made by the United Nations' International Labour Office towards Saskatchewan's Bills 5 and 6 are non-binding and will not force a change in Saskatchewan's labour laws.

The text on the ILO's recommendations and the case made by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (as well as the National Union of Public and General Employees, Canadian Labour Congress, and Public Services International) can be found here.

Effectively, the ILO ruled that Saskatchewan's Bill 5 and Bill 6 violated the Charter Rights of Workers. Bill 5, which enacted Essential Services Legislation and Bill 6, amended the Trade Unions Act which sought to weaken the ability of unions/workers to have collective bargaining with their employer and the ability of workers to join unions.

When the bills were introduced, there was local and global complaints about the heavy-handed nature of the bills, which led to a Charter of Rights & Freedom challenge and a complaint filed to the ILO. Despite these bills being attacked and examined on a national and international level, the Wall Government is continuing with their anti-worker/union based legislation with Bill 80; another bill which will likely be challenged should it pass through the legislature.

The ILO has supported the challenges presented, and proposed six recommendations that Saskatchewan should undertake to ensure that the bills no longer violate the rights of workers. However, Minister Norris has taken a page from the 'Harper Handbook' and declared that the ILO's decision is not legally binding, and that the government has no obligation to follow through on the recommendations.

This has led Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich, to warn Minister Norris that previous violation of workers rights (which occurred in British Columbia) led to a Supreme Court case which saw the B.C. Government have to pay out $100 million dollars in penalties. Norris has dismissed Hubich's statement as nothing more than 'fear-mongering', which is surprising.

Given the Sask Party's history of condemning people who speak the truth, it's surprising he didn't accuse Mr. Hubich of being 'down on Saskatchewan'. The fact of the matter is, that Mr. Hubich is speaking the truth. Gordon Campbell's Liberal Government was found in violation of worker's rights in and had to pay out a penalty for their violation. For a government who is talking about belt-tightening, it seems odd that they'd be willing to risk having to pay out a massive penalty rather than amend or repeal legislation, which would save taxpayers millions.

Given that the suit has already been filed, with the SFL waiting to hear from the Attorney General on where to go next, Minister Norris should know that he is playing with fire. But of course, in another stolen play, Minister Norris has said that he and the Wall Government are ready to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Seems Minister Norris stopped just short of telling the SFL to 'Bring it on'. Given that the ILO has already found against the government and proposed changes, it seems highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would find merit in the Saskatchewan Government's case.

So, the belt-tightening in Saskatchewan has begun...Given that taxpayers are about to foot the bill on legal costs for the Wall Government's refusal to back down on legislation which is violating the rights of workers and individuals; not to mention the penalties the Saskatchewan Government will have to pay out when the Supreme Court finds against them.

The Wall Government is fighting a losing battle, but in the end, it's the average Saskatchewan worker and taxpayer that will suffer from the Wall Government, and Minister Norris', stubborn and bullheaded approach to politics.


Malcolm+ said...

So called double dipping is problematical because it can be manipulated. For example, a person "retires" from their position and then is hired back as a contractor or consultant to do the same job. They are now collecting payment for doing the same job while also receiving a pension.

As a temporary measure, this can be justifiable. The new person hired to replace the retiree has to take a short medical leave. A new temporary employee can't be trained fast enough. The former incumbent comes back on a temporary basis to do their old job, and collects both salary and pension for, say, 30 days.

But there are serious ethical problems if a person is pensioned from a position, returns to the position on a long-term basis and continues to collect their pension.

Most pension plans assume that a retiree stays retired - or at least doesn't come back to the same employer. Even so, most plans actually have a provision to stop the pension if the pensioner returns to contributor status beyond a predetermined length of time - usually 30 to 90 days.

The fact that the old MLA plan doesn't have that kind of provision is stupid and ought to be fixed. But it doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

This is not a problem that Dwain Lingenfelter created, nor one that he could reasonably have anticipated. His ad hoc solution of giving 50% of his benefit to charity is a reasonable attempt to contend with a piece of bureaucratic inanity.

That said, the leader's office should have been in front of this issue rather than playing come from behind. This was completely mishandled from a communications perspective.

Mr X in Regina said...

It's my understanding that the health system in the province has the capacity to perform all the surgeries, MRI/CTs etc. that we need, the problem is that we've got a substantial waitlist.

If you agree with that premise, why would you ever want the province to add more equipment (MRI,CT, beds etc.) if they will be empty once we eliminate the waiting list? Wouldn't it be preferable for the provincial government to do everything it can to eliminate the waiting list so once we get back to square one we can ensure that our health system is always at 100% capacity?

I suspect that the NDP's objection to $10.5 million being spent on something other than a government owned operation has much more to do with an ideological bias than the SaskParty's decision to use private clinics to help get rid of our wait list.