Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger
Credits: BRIAN DONOGH/WINNIPEG SUN/QMI AGENCY
WINNIPEG -- The provincial NDP appears to be retreating from its promise to stop running deficits by 2014.
The province had pledged to operate without an annual deficit by the 2014-15 fiscal year. But during a pre-throne speech press conference on Monday, Premier Greg Selinger stopped short of committing to be back in the black by the original deadline.
"We're giving ourselves more wiggle room to deal with reality," said Selinger. "I am creating more space to look at the reality that is before all governments in Canada right now."
But Opposition leader Brian Pallister said the province needs to "grow up" and tackle the budget crunch.
"The NDP's doors have been open for years to balance the books, and they've doubled our debt in this province through good times," the Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader said.
Selinger said 2011 flood costs that are now expected to soar above the $1.25-billion mark play a key role in the budget crunch.
Last year's Manitoba deficit was the largest recorded in provincial history, at $999 million. This year's deficit is forecast to be about $500 million.
Finance Minister Stan Struthers, who is expected to provide the province's next financial update in December, said it's too soon to tell if the current deficit will rise.
"We're still going to work to come back into balance, but not at the expense of health care, education and services that protect kids," Struthers said. "We're not going to do deep cuts in order to come back into balance."
The province hopes to find some savings by cutting 600 provincial civil service jobs through attrition and retirement over the next three years. Layoffs are not in the plans.
The government also hopes to cut costs by consolidating government offices and amalgamating rural municipalities. About half of Manitoba's roughly 200 municipalities serve fewer than 1,000 people -- the minimum threshold established back in 1997.
A local tax critic says planned cuts won't be enough to get the province back in the black, and the 2014 balanced budget goal wasn't realistic in the first place.
Colin Craig, Manitoba director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said Manitoba's plan to reduce the civil service by 600 workers, for example, falls far short of Saskatchewan's plan to cut 1,500.
"You have to start saying no to luxury projects, too. You can't keep saying yes to every single project that comes across the government's desk," Craig said, noting multimillion-dollar contributions to Winnipeg's new football stadium and convention centre expansion.