WINNIPEG - Manitoba's governing New Democrats may break their balanced-budget promise a second time if one of the people trying to oust Premier Greg Selinger gets elected.
Selinger originally promised to end a string of deficits that started in 2009 by 2014. Two years ago, he pushed the deadline back to 2016. And even that date has appeared conditional lately.
In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, Selinger stressed a balanced budget would not come to pass if it would mean deep cuts to core government services.
That caveat was too much Monday for Theresa Oswald, one of the candidates in a leadership race forced upon Selinger. Oswald said the 2016 target date should be tossed aside completely.
"I believe coming back into balance at the 2016 date that Premier Selinger is focused on — fixated on, one would say — is dangerous, and that it will compromise health care and education," Oswald said.
The only other candidate in the race so far, Steve Ashton, was less adamant. He would only say the 2016 target date should not be "set in stone."
"The key thing for me ... is to make sure we can properly support health, education, social services, and that we don't have a rigid target that would cause us to jam on the breaks to result in any kind of cuts to those kinds of services."
The government has faced increasing doubts about its fiscal management. 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 projected.
Moody's Investor Services downgraded the government's outlook last August from stable to negative, based in part on worries the balanced-budget target might not be met.
Oswald said Monday that eliminating the deficit in two years would require cutting about $200 million from front-line services — something she said she is unwilling to do.
Selinger was not available for comment. He has yet to formally file his nomination papers, but has said he will do so before the Jan. 6 deadline.
The internal revolt against Selinger blew open in October, when Oswald and four other senior cabinet ministers went public with suggestions that he consider resigning. The NDP had sunk in opinion polls after raising the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven last year.
Selinger has pledged to fight his challengers and the party has organized a leadership contest for March 8.
Oswald referred to the sales tax increase Monday, as she made a campaign promise to offer tax rebates to low-income earners.
Details of the plan, such as who would qualify and how much they would receive, are still to be worked out. But she said it would probably cost the provincial treasury between $10 million and $15 million a year.
"Our estimates show that low-income families are probably paying somewhere between $75 and $125 (a year) as a result of the (tax) increase. As an example, I would say a family of four with an income of $35,000 a year or less."
Not far away, Ashton held a news conference to show off supporter Dave Gaudreau, one of the few caucus members who stood beside Selinger when the coup erupted.
Gaudreau, who represents the St. Norbert constituency in south Winnipeg, said he turned away from Selinger after talking with people.
"Right now, the public is looking for a new leader and Steve (Ashton) has done wonderful work in the area with me. He's always been great to St. Norbert."
It's unclear how much caucus support Selinger still has. One of his remaining cabinet ministers, Ron Lemieux, has come out in support of Oswald, as have the four ministers who resigned along with her. Other backbenchers, including Jim Rondeau and Tom Nevakshonoff, have declared support for Ashton.