Manitoba

Manitoba NDP poised to block bill it says could undermine PUB, raise hydro rates

The Manitoba NDP says it will block a bill it believes will weaken the Public Utilities Board and give the provincial goverment "carte blanche" to set utility rates without public input.

Province says bill meant to curb review process costs

The NDP plans to block Bill 35 over concerns the province will raise hydro rates without the approval of an independent body. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The Manitoba NDP says it will block a bill it believes will weaken the Public Utilities Board and give the provincial government "carte blanche" to set utility rates without public input.

The opposition party announced on Sunday it will invoke parliamentary power to stop Bill 35, The Public Utilities Ratepayer Protection and Regulatory Reform Act, and prevent it from being guaranteed passage by the spring.

"We're going to use every tool that we have to hold off this Bill 35 so that you, the average person out there, [have] a bit of time to at least learn what this whole thing's about. And hopefully, with the added attention and with the added time, people across Manitoba will speak out and say, 'That's not fair, we don't want that,'" said NDP Leader Wab Kinew at a news conference on Sunday.

The independent Public Utilities Board currently allows Manitobans to have their say through public hearings every year Manitoba Hydro applies for a rate change. It's the PUB that then rules on whether to allow the rate change.

But Bill 35 would have PUB approve electricity rates in five-year intervals rather than annually. Any rate adjustments would be approved through government regulation.

The Public Utilities Board currently allows Manitobans to have their say through public hearings every year Manitoba Hydro applies for a rate change. It's the PUB that then rules on whether to allow the rate change. (Vera-Lynn Kubinec/CBC)

The NDP worry the legislation would limit the PUB's ability to independently set and regulate electricity and gas rates, and would open the door to the break-up of Hydro.

Blake Robert, a government spokesperson says the move by the NDP is "pathetic.

"If the NDP wants to address political interference at Manitoba Hydro, they should look in the mirror," he said in an email.

"Had they bothered to read the bill, the NDP would know that Bill 35 will in fact enhance the PUB and its oversight on behalf of Manitobans."

The province has said there is an opportunity to right some of the wrongs of the past, including massive Hydro projects that the NDP oversaw when it was in power.

An economic review of the Bipole III and Keeyask dam that was released earlier this month said NDP mismanagement of those projects contributed to Manitoba Hydro's overall debt tripling during the course of construction.

The Keeyask generating station. Premier Brian Pallister says the bill is meant to increase public input on megaprojects, like hydro dams. (Manitoba Hydro)

"Our government is also looking to strengthen Bill 35 based on recommendations from the Wall Report so that Manitobans will never again have a multi-billion dollar project foisted on them without proper approval," Robert said.

When the bill was first proposed last year, Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton said the multi-year rate approvals would improve the timing and cost-efficiency of review processes, benefitting rate payers.

Members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 were at the NDP news conference.

The union represents 2,300 front-line hydro workers, some of whom went on strike earlier this week after failing to come to a contract agreement with the Crown corporation.

In an email to members, the union expressed concerns Bill 35 could leave Manitoba Hydro open to being privatized, risking jobs.

Kinew says one of the key parts of privatization is removing independent oversight bodies.

"By removing the Public Utilities Board oversight, they're removing that layer of protection that would step in and stand in the way if Mr. Pallister wanted to break off another piece of Hydro and sell it off."

With files from Darren Bernhardt and Ian Froese

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