WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government appears set to break its promise to balance the budget by 2014 as it invests new money in health care, environmental programs and other items.
Premier Greg Selinger says he is giving his government some leeway in its plan, which is currently enshrined in law, to end deficits by the 2014-15 fiscal year.
"We're giving ourselves more wiggle room to deal with reality, absolutely," Selinger said Monday.
"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."
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said last week that a weak global economy means the federal deficit will be $5 billion higher than predicted this year and the budget will be balanced a year later than planned.
In Alberta, earlier predictions of a surplus budget by next year have evaporated with a revised forecast of up to a $3-billion deficit. The province plans to borrow money for infrastructure projects.
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.
The admission is 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.
His replacement, Brian Pallister, said Monday the NDP has failed to manage its spending.
"They've never developed a skill set around how to fundamentally manage properly in a real environment, an environment all of us have to face in our own homes, in our own small businesses, in real life."
Pallister said he expects the NDP will increase yet more taxes in the spring budget. The last budget hiked taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, several kinds of personal and property insurance, hair cuts and tattoos.
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.
The throne speech contains several new spending initiatives, most of which build on existing programs.
In health care, the government plans to fund 200 more personal care home beds, provide extra money to medical practices that agree to take on new patients and upgrade 16 rural chemotherapy centres to provide complete cancer care.
In education, the government promises to create new training and certification programs for principals, set up new parent-friendly curriculum tools and upgrade rural high school shop classrooms to apprenticeship standards.
Selinger also promises new consumer protection measures for people who buy homes, vehicles and cable or satellite television services.
"You'll see specific consumer legislation coming forward, for example, on a home warranty protection program, that will ensure there's a greater band of protection for people when they buy a new home," Selinger said.
Cable bills will have to be more transparent about fees that are being charged, Selinger added.
The province is also promising cost-cutting measures, including the elimination of 600 civil service positions over three years — through attrition, not layoffs.
The province also wants to force small municipalities to amalgamate in time for the municipal elections in 2014, although the details have not been worked out.
"We're going to require that municipalities come together in larger units so we can promote more economic development in rural areas," Selinger said.
"We want to do a period of consultation and have a lot of participation from municipalities themselves."
Other promises include curbside composting programs, starting soon in Brandon, and new rules for motorists.
The government will introduce new legislation that will reduce speed limits around emergency vehicles that are stopped on the road. Firefighters will be given authority to direct traffic around accident sights.
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said the throne speech failed to provide any new hope for the poor, at a time when food back usage is rising.
"This throne speech really turned a blind eye to the people that are most in need in this province," he said.
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