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PST scrap may send province to poorhouse

Government to run out of money at end of July

The stalemate in the legislature threatens to push the government over a "fiscal cliff," NDP house leader Jennifer Howard said Wednesday.

Howard, who was loath to use those two words six weeks ago, said the possibility the government could run out of money by the end of July looms larger as Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives continue to plug up the government's legislative and fiscal agenda.

The wheels of government have not spun since April 16 when Finance Minister Stan Struthers introduced his budget and the one-percentage-point increase to the provincial sales tax to eight per cent, which took effect July 1.

As of Wednesday, the legislature has sat for 49 days -- 13 of those days in an emergency sitting that started last month when the Tories filibustered and used procedural delays to hold up the passage of bills and approval of departmental spending.

Howard said the delay threatens to affect all Manitobans, including Tory supporters.

"The only way to avoid the fiscal cliff is the co-operation of everyone in the legislature," she said. "Everyone has to take responsibility.

"We're heading into uncharted territory now. We've never seen the opposition use such a scorched-earth policy."

At risk is the government's ability to make money flow after July 31, she said.

Premier Greg Selinger's cabinet issued a special warrant at the end of March to guarantee all government departments get the money they need to operate, but only until the end of July when the warrant expires.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the departmental spending approval process was nearing its end -- fewer than 18 hours of committee hearings remain of the required 100 -- but the legislature still has to go through concurrence. The opposition had agreed to sit for extended hours this week, but only to avoid sitting Friday. The estimates approval process normally takes about 31/2 weeks.

The government could attempt to bring in temporary funding through an interim supply bill as the July 31 deadline nears, but Howard said that would be pointless as the Tories would oppose it as well.

The NDP could also attempt to invoke closure to end debate and force a vote on its bills, but under the rules the Tories could oppose that, too.

The Tories could co-operate with the NDP on spending commitments and still oppose Bill 20, which hiked the PST without the need for a referendum, Howard said.

"We need to ensure that there is money available for the services that Manitobans count on," she said.

The Tories were unapologetic Wednesday. Pallister said he would reveal financial data today, which he said proves there is no need for the tax increase.

Tory house leader Kelvin Goertzen said the NDP caused this predicament because it controls the legislative agenda.

"It's self-induced panic," he said. "We said we were going to stand up for Manitobans and we intend to do that."

Meantime, Goertzen introduced a private memeber's bill Wednesday on cyber-bullies. It would allow victims to obtain protection orders when they are the targets of cyber-bullies and would allow for the seizure of electronics used by cyber-bullies.

It would also create a separate civil tort of cyber-bullying and put an onus on parents to act when they are aware their child is engaged in cyber-bullying.

Goertzen's bill, to be debated today, is in response to the NDP's anti-bullying bill, a bill he described as one of the weakest in North America: "If they delay this bill, they'll delay the protection of children."

Bill 18 would accommodate gay-straight alliances in publicly funded schools. The NDP hopes the bill is passed in time for the next school year, but mandatory public hearings have yet to be scheduled.

On May 10, June 10 and July 3, the NDP say Goertzen used his unlimited speaking time on Bill 18 to prevent the vote that would send it to committee. On May 2, May 27, June 11 and June 12, the bill was called, but the Tories prevented it from being debated by filibustering other legislation.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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