Pallister government quietly kills act designed to track utility affordability

The Progressive Conservatives have quietly killed a legislative act designed to monitor and report on the affordability of Manitoba’s utility rates.

Single line in budget reveals repeal of act that compares provincial costs for a bundle of utilities

Brian Pallister's government says it will repeal The Affordable Utility Rate Accountability Act, which compares provincial costs for a bundle of utilities. (CBC News)

The Progressive Conservatives have quietly killed a legislative act designed to monitor and report on the affordability of Manitoba's utility rates.

And the move has drawn criticism from anti-poverty organizations that the government is giving up on keeping Manitoban's hydro rates among the lowest in the country.

The Affordable Utility Rate Accountability Act required the province to enlist an independent accounting firm to prepare a report each year comparing the cost in each province of a bundle including home electricity, home heating and car insurance.

Under the act, if the report shows the cost of the utility bundle in any province to be lower than in Manitoba, the finance minister must prepare a plan to return the province to the lowest-cost position.

Buried within the hundreds of pages of Tuesday's budget documents was a single sentence stating the act will be repealed and no report will be prepared in 2017-18.

Lost oversight worries anti-poverty groups

The anti-poverty groups Make Poverty History Manitoba and Winnipeg Harvest both worry the move will take away government oversight on utility rates during a time when the Manitoba Hydro Board is warning of double-digit rate increases.

For low-income families, utility increases can make a huge dent in the amount of money available each month, said Make Poverty History's Josh Brandon.

"That's where I think Manitobans should be concerned," he said.

"If the finance minister no longer wants to have that obligation and to keep hydro rates affordable and to keep public insurance rates affordable, a lot of Manitobans are going to feel that, and it is not going to mean more money on the kitchen table for them."

Premier Brian Pallister was never a fan of the act, calling it "a basket-case kind of legislation" last year. The act was introduced by the former NDP government in 2012 as part of its pledge to keep Manitoba affordable.

"It's an optic. A billboard," he said last October. "It's designed to promote the government of the day. I'm not interested in the legislation so much as the quality of the services and the prices Manitobans pay for those services."

It was also heavily criticized by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which called the roughly $7,000 a year the Selinger government spent on the independent report a waste of public money.

A request for comment was made to Finance Minister Cameron Friesen. At press time, no comment was provided to explain why the act was repealed. 

Opposition questions transparency in repeal

New Democrat finance critic James Allum questioned the transparency of the move, given the announcement was buried in Tuesday's budget.

"I think Manitobans would want to know that a law that required Manitoba to have the lowest bundle of utilities rates … that it would be repealed, that it would be announced so everyone would know what the government's agenda was," said Allum.

New Democrat MLA James Allum questions the transparency of the government's announcement of the repeal of the act. (CBC)

"I think they have made it very clear that they expect hydro rates to soar … and I assume they felt compromised by the legislation."

The rates for auto insurance and home electricity ultimately fall to the province's Public Utilities Board. The independent, quasi-judicial administrative tribunal considers both the impact to customers and financial requirements of the utility in approving rates.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro said its application for a rate increase is expected early May. The PUB approved a 3.7 per cent overall general rate increase for Manitoba Public Insurance for 2017-18 in December.