11/19/2012 10:10 EST | Updated 01/19/2013 05:12 EST

Manitoba stresses economic restraint in throne speech

Economic restraint is a major theme in Manitoba's latest Speech from the Throne, which launched a new session of the provincial legislature on Monday.

In the speech, which was read by Chief Justice Richard Scott, the province's NDP government committed to cutting 600 public-sector positions over the next three years, mostly through attrition.

"Our plan to move Manitoba forward through these uncertain times is balanced, moderate and forward-looking," the throne speech states in part.

"Now is not the time for a dramatic expansion of the public sector, nor for reckless cuts to key services. Rather it is a time to protect core services while making targeted, strategic investments to support opportunities and economic growth."

The province is also promising to consolidate government offices whenever it can, in order to reduce costs, as well as "adopt best practices to reduce procurement costs across government."

In a first, the government is backing down from its firm target to end deficit spending by the 2014-15 fiscal year, citing the soft global economy.

The province has previously said its books would be balanced by then, but Premier Greg Selinger told reporters on Monday morning he's giving the government "more wiggle room" with that target, which is currently enshrined in law.

"We're giving ourselves more wiggle room to deal with reality, absolutely," Selinger said.

"I'm saying we want to make continual progress in being able to balance the books, and we have seen at other levels of government and across the country, that there have been some changes in those plans, given the softening of the global economy, including at the federal level."

The final word will come next month when Finance Minister Stan Struthers is scheduled to release the government's second-quarter fiscal update, Selinger added, and the balanced budget law will be changed if need be.

Deficit expected to dominate session

The ballooning deficit is expected to dominate the session. Struthers has said if things continue the way they have been, the next deficit could be $2 billion higher than what it was last year.

Despite a recent move by the federal government to extend its deficit spending, the provincial government was committed to its five-year strategy to get back to a surplus budget by 2014-2015.

The latest admission is bound to provide political fodder for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, who have long said the NDP would not meet its target.

Former Tory leader Hugh McFadyen campaigned in last year's election on a plan to run deficits until 2017 — a move he said was the only realistic option without major tax increases.

McFadyen was criticized by some party members for the plan and announced his resignation after losing the election.

Brian Pallister, who takes over from McFadyen as Opposition leader, has said he wants to hold the NDP government to account for its finances and the economy.

The government has tabled red-ink budgets since the 2009-10 fiscal year. It is aiming to post a deficit of $448 million this year. To meet that target, the government has promised to sell $80 million in government assets and find $128 million in day-to-day spending reductions.

By the end of September, halfway through the fiscal year, Struthers had not sold off any assets and had found $66 million in cuts by reducing some advertising, pushing back construction projects and taking some other measures.

Some rural municipalities to merge

The throne speech also notes that rural municipalities with small populations will eventually be forced to amalgamate.

For now, the process will be voluntary, but it will become mandatory within a year.

The NDP government hopes the changes will help reduce administrative costs and increase emergency preparedness.

Of the nearly 200 municipalities in Manitoba, 92 of them do not meet the Municipal Act's population threshold of 1,000.

"Our government is committed to ensuring all municipalities have the capacity to provide essential infrastructure and services to their citizens — without which, they would be unable to meet modern challenges such as effective planning, emergency preparedness and economic development," the throne speech states in part.

"In the year ahead, we will work with municipalities to begin a process of municipal amalgamations to ensure communities are able to meet the challenges of the next century."

Consumer protection

Elsewhere in the throne speech, the province is promising to protect consumers buying new homes and cars and make cable bills more transparent.

The government says it will introduce new measures in the coming year "to keep life affordable for families and protect consumers around new home construction, car sales, and cable bills," according to the speech.

The province notes that Manitobans already pay the lowest rates in Canada for basic utilities, including home heating, electricity and auto insurance.

In health care, the province says it will help rural cancer patients by transforming all 16 of its rural chemotherapy centres into full CancerCare Manitoba hubs, similar to the hub that opened in the Morden-Winkler area last year.

The CancerCare hubs will offer "better, co-ordinated services to support patients as they receive testing and care," according to the throne speech.

The province will boost the number of medical residencies, in an effort to train more family doctors. It's also promising to fund more front-line workers — like nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses and dieticians — for medical practices that agree to accept more patients.

With regards to labour, the province says its Premier's Economic Advisory Council will convene a Skills Summit in the coming year to discuss ways to add 75,000 more workers to the labour force by the year 2020.

"This will contribute to a virtuous cycle: more good jobs for Manitobans mean more young families will choose to build their futures here, which in turn helps support a strong labour force well into the future," the speech reads in part.

The summit will focus on education, apprenticeships and job training, developing a First Nations and Métis labour force, and continuing to develop the province's immigration strategy, according to the speech.