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End is nigh at Manitoba legislature

Longest-ever spring sitting to finish in mid-September

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The Selinger government and the Opposition Conservatives have reached a deal that will see the longest-ever spring sitting of the Manitoba legislature end by mid-September.

The agreement, hammered out late Thursday, will see two high-priority government bills -- one targeting school bullying and another forcing tiny municipalities to amalgamate -- pass by no later than Sept. 17.

But much of the government's legislative agenda, including the controversial Bill 20, which enables the province to hike the PST without a public referendum, will be deferred until late fall.

The deal means there is finally an end date in sight for a rancorous marathon legislative sitting that threatened to extend without a break late into the year as both sides dug in their heels on several key issues.

"Everybody is going to come out here and claim victory. The reality is that in any kind of negotiation there's compromise. And both sides have compromised," government house leader Jennifer Howard said afterwards.

'Everybody is going to come out here and claim victory. The reality is that in any kind of negotiation there's compromise. And both sides have compromised'

-- government house leader Jennifer Howard

Under the agreement, close to four dozen government bills will pass by the end of the year, ending a legislative logjam the likes of which Manitoba has not seen in recent memory, if ever.

The Conservatives, however, will have several more months to stir up public opposition and resentment to the PST hike before a final vote must be held on it by early December. They also won a key concession from the Selinger government, ensuring spring sessions begin in early March (this year's began April 16) and do not end until at least mid-June.

"That will move us from having the least sitting days in Canada to the most, and we believe that is a considerable achievement for democracy and for transparency and for accountability in this province," Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said.

In addition to the anti-bullying and municipal-amalgamation bills, eight more pieces of legislation will be passed by next month. The rest of the bills will be carried over to the fall sitting, which will begin Nov. 12.

On that date, the government will deliver a speech from the throne. But by all-party agreement, bills not passed by September will be carried forward to November without having to be reintroduced. The remaining bills will have passed second reading, allowing for public hearings to be carried out on them throughout the fall.

Late Thursday, Bill 18, the government's proposed anti-bullying law, passed second reading, allowing for public hearings to begin next Tuesday evening. A total of 317 Manitobans have signed on to speak on Bill 18, most from outside Winnipeg.

In addition, committee hearings will also be held on controversial legislation (Bill 33) that will force tiny municipalities to amalgamate.

Eighty-three Manitobans have asked to address MLAs on that bill.

It all means MLAs will be sitting for long hours in the weeks ahead before they finally get a break.

An agreement ending the stalemate was hammered out by Howard, Opposition house leader Kelvin Goertzen and lone Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard late Thursday.

Pallister said it was time the public had a chance to weigh in on some key pieces of legislation. He said the Opposition knew it couldn't hold up the government's legislative agenda indefinitely, and it had made its points, particularly on the PST hike.

"It's been a long, hot summer for everyone," the Tory leader said, adding the lengthy session had been a "worthwhile exercise in democracy."

Another advantage of Thursday's agreement is MLAs now have a formal structure in place on when they will sit and when they won't, meaning future marathon sessions are likely a thing of the past.

"The Opposition is going to have certainty about when we come back (in spring) and we're going to have certainty that the bills we put forward will pass," Howard said. "I think that will be better for the functioning of the legislature and for everybody."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2013 A4

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