01/27/2015 03:36 EST | Updated 03/29/2015 05:59 EDT

"I don't like" balanced budget law: Manitoba NDP leadership candidate

WINNIPEG - One of the leadership candidates for Manitoba's governing New Democrats has left the door open to changing the province's balanced budget law if she becomes premier on March 8.

Theresa Oswald, one of NDP three vying for the leadership, said Tuesday she had not formulated a detailed stance on the topic, but feels the law is too restrictive and changes should be considered.

"I haven't taken a position as of yet ... on whether or not I would make significant amendments to the balanced budget law or blow it up in its entirety," Oswald told reporters.

"I'm saying loud and clear that I don't like our law. I think that it has nothing to do with actual balance. So I think that that's worth having a discussion, but I haven't said anything specific about what I might leave in or leave out or whatever. That's a discussion that a caucus and a government should have of itself."

The law, introduced by the former Progressive Conservative government two decades ago, cuts the salaries of cabinet ministers every year in which the government runs a deficit. It also requires a referendum to be held before any increase in the provincial sales, income or corporate payroll taxes.

Premier Greg Selinger suspended the referendum requirement when he raised the sales tax to eight per cent from seven in 2013, and has amended the law several times to allow for deficits in the event of certain circumstances, such as a sharp cut in federal transfer payments.

Oswald said the law is flawed because it puts at risk funding for front-line services such as health care and education. She also said it is tougher than planned federal legislation because it contains no exception for severe economic downturns.

"I think that it should be open to discussion about what we do with that particular piece of legislation that bears very little resemblance to legislation anywhere else in Canada."

Selinger was not available for comment Tuesday.

The third leadership candidate, Steve Ashton, has said he would maintain the main points of the balanced budget law.

"I think it's become a feature of Manitoba politics and I don't think Manitobans would accept removing key provisions," he said in a recent interview.

The only change needed for now, he said, is a requirement for the province to end a string of deficits by 2016 — a date that Ashton has already said will likely need to be pushed back.

Oswald made the balanced-budget comments following a news conference Tuesday where she promised improvements to worker safety.

She said if she becomes premier, she would:

— make workplace safety part of the school curriculum

— hire five new health and safety inspectors to focus on health care and other high-risk sectors.

— develop mandatory, independent reviews into every workplace death.

Oswald also said she would look at extending mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage to more industries. About one in four workers are currently exempt, including teachers. A decision on exactly who would be covered under expanded coverage would follow consultations with employers and labour groups, she said.