Manitoba government faces balanced-budget dilemma as legislature session starts
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister faces some tough fiscal choices and two opposition parties that still don't have permanent leaders in a new session of the legislature that begins Monday.
Pallister's Progressive Conservatives inherited a deficit of $846 million from the former NDP government after the April provincial election and have promised to move toward a balanced budget.
Pallister said Monday's throne speech, which will outline the government's agenda for the coming year, will focus on restoring the province's finances while also preserving front-line services.
"The three general themes that I'll be addressing ... will be centered on those themes of fixing our finances fundamentally and repairing the services of the province, and also beginning to rebuild the economic structure of our province," he said.
Pallister has complained about expensive bills that he says were left by the NDP, including a $400-million estimate to replace the province's emergency communications system for first responders and others.
During the election campaign he said that he wouldn't balance the budget until sometime in a second term — meaning he could take up to eight years if re-elected.
"Brian Pallister is enough of a student of Manitoba history to know that the only one-term government in Manitoba history ... campaigned and governed under a slogan of acute, protracted restraint," said Thomas, referring to the Sterling Lyon government of 1977-1981.
"Pallister knows you can go too far, too fast."
Opinion polls suggest Pallister continues to be popular among voters. Thomas says that's partly attributable to an ongoing leadership vacuum in the opposition.
The NDP and Liberals saw their respective leaders step down after the election and are still months away from choosing permanent replacements.
The New Democrats have accused Pallister of having a hidden agenda to privatize and slash front-line services.
When the Tories folded a road-building agency on the east side of Lake Winnipeg into the Infrastructure Department and said only managers would be affected, the NDP said the change would inevitably lead to fewer roads built in a remote region that needs reliable transportation links.
One of the major items in the new legislature session is to be a balanced-budget law. The former NDP government made several changes to the law, which required a referendum on major tax increases and forced cabinet ministers to take pay cuts when the government is in deficit.
Pallister scrapped the law shortly after taking power and promised to replace it. But he has hinted that the new law may not penalize cabinet ministers for running deficits.
"My intention would be to make sure there is some element of accountability there, because cabinet ministers do make those decisions. Whether it's based on deficit reduction or targeted numbers or not, that's a question for discussion."