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Province will take longer to kill deficit

'Wiggle room' needed: premier

Sergeant-at-arms Blake Dunn, followed by Speaker Daryl Reid and other officials, carries the mace into the legislative chamber Monday.

PHOTOS BY JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Sergeant-at-arms Blake Dunn, followed by Speaker Daryl Reid and other officials, carries the mace into the legislative chamber Monday.

The Selinger government is breaking its two-year-old promise to pull Manitoba out of deficit by 2014.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
 Premier Greg Selinger: 'wiggle room to deal with reality'

Enlarge Image

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Premier Greg Selinger: 'wiggle room to deal with reality'

On a day normally reserved for highlighting government achievements and setting a positive agenda for the year ahead, the broken pledge took centre stage when Premier Greg Selinger confessed the province's finances could remain stuck in deficit longer than planned.

"We're giving ourselves more wiggle room to deal with reality -- absolutely," the premier told reporters Monday. "I am creating more space to look at the reality that is in front of all governments in Canada right now."

How bad the province's finances are -- caused in large part by ongoing bills from the 2011 flood -- will be better known in December when the province releases an updated financial report.

Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Brian Pallister jumped on the broken promise as a sign the NDP, in office since 1999, is a dying government.

"It appears that about a third to a quarter of that deficit of the last two years was due to Mother Nature and three-quarters of it was due to the NDP spending too much money," Pallister said.

Under its five-year economic plan introduced in March 2010, the NDP vowed to bring the province out of deficit by 2014. The hope was that by spending money on infrastructure and not cutting services, Manitoba and Canada would avoid the ravages of the recession.

While the economy held, it's far from buoyant, Selinger said.

"We're going to take into account the real change in the global economy, just like the federal government has done -- it's no different," the premier said, referring to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's statements last week that Ottawa may extend its own timeline for balancing its books.

After running up a $1-billion deficit in 2011-2012, due largely to the flood, the government projected a $460-million deficit for the current fiscal year. This past spring, the NDP projected a $176-million deficit for 2013-2014 and a small surplus in 2014-2015.

Selinger and the rest of Canada's premiers meet Thursday and Friday in Halifax to discuss global economic and trade issues and their impact on the provinces and territories.

To squeeze out some savings, the NDP said in its throne speech it will reduce the size of its civil service by 600 people over the next three years through attrition, retirement and other measures.

With money so tight, the government made few big spending commitments in the speech, which read more like a rehash of past achievements.

For instance, it vowed increases in health spending would rise by half the rate of the past dozen years.

The government also set a target of adding 75,000 more workers to the provincial labour force by 2020, which would exceed current job growth rates by about 30 per cent.

In education, the province promised new parent-friendly "curriculum tools" to keep parents up to speed on what their kids are learning. It will also introduce new measures to help parents, teachers and students fight bullying. And it promised to designate locations for new schools in the Waverley West and Sage Creek communities.

One expensive election promise it did commit to this year was an expansion of Red River College's skilled trades and technology centre, where students will receive trades training for the construction and manufacturing sectors. That will cost $60 million.

The government also promised to establish government liquor kiosks at several grocery stores in Winnipeg and Brandon and make it possible for liquor-permit applications for wedding socials to be completed online.

As reported Monday in the Free Press, the government will also call on municipalities with fewer than 1,000 people to merge with others. The province wants to see these amalgamations take place in time for the 2014 municipal elections.

The province also plans to put new rules against drunk driving in place in time for the holiday season. Justice Minister Andrew Swan said anyone convicted of impaired driving will have to use an ignition interlock for one year, meaning they will have to blow into an alcohol-detection device to start their car.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

The government will:

Aim to add 75,000 workers to the labour force by 2020;

Reduce the civil service by 600 people over the next three years through attrition;

Encourage amalgamation of dozens of tiny municipalities;

Spend $60 million on a new Skilled Trades and Technology Centre at Red River College;

Detail plans to add 200 personal-care-home beds in Winnipeg;

Increase medical residencies to train more family doctors and nurse practitioners;

Search for new ways to deliver home care to keep older Manitobans in their homes;

Introduce new anti-bullying measures and a web-based program for parents to see what their children are being taught in school;

Upgrade rural high school shop classrooms to apprenticeship standards and make it easier for all high school students to start an apprenticeship;

Introduce new speed-reduction rules to protect first responders, and give firefighters the power to direct traffic;

Open new Liquor Mart Express locations in some Winnipeg and Brandon grocery stores;

Introduce new measures to protect consumers on automobile sales, cable bills and new home construction; and

Bring in legislation to improve accessibility to public buildings for disabled persons.

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