WINNIPEG - Having pushed back his promise to balance the budget once already, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says his new target date of 2016 is a goal that he aims to achieve.
"We are focusing on meeting that target. That's the objective and we will look at that," Selinger said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.
"But we also have said that we will protect core services and continue to have a priority on growing the economy. So we will make sure we do all of those things as we move forward."
The NDP government has been running deficits since 2009. During the 2011 election campaign, Selinger promised to balance the books by the 2014-15 fiscal year. Two years ago, Selinger pushed the target date back two years.
But even the new target appears conditional. Selinger and his two most recent finance ministers have stressed their desire to balance fiscal discipline with protection of health care and other services.
Selinger said the province's finances have been hit in part by the sluggish national economy and its effect on equalization payments — money the federal government gives to poorer provinces so they can offer services similar to those of richer ones.
Ontario started receiving equalization payments in 2009 as the downturn hit, leaving the traditional "have-not" provinces to share a smaller amount. At the same time, Manitoba's slow-but-steady economy performed better than the national average, resulting in a reduction in the federal support it is entitled to receive.
Manitoba now collects about $300 million less a year in equalization than it did in 2009.
The province is also in a dispute with Statistics Canada. It says the federal agency undercounted the province's population by 18,000 people, resulting in a loss of about $100 million a year in federal transfers for equalization, health and social services. Statistics Canada has rejected the accusation.
"Times are challenging," Selinger said.
In its last budget update, the government revealed a projected deficit of $402 million for the fiscal year that ends in March — $45 million higher than originally planned.
Selinger said the deficit is manageable and can be slayed, as it amounts to roughly one-half of one per cent of the provincial economy. But a balanced budget is not his only goal.
"We also have to look after Manitobans when they need health care. We also have to make sure that we train young people to have jobs in Manitoba, and we also have to make sure that we're investing in infrastructure and things that will grow the economy."