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Selinger backs off on commitment to balance province’s books by 2014

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Premier Greg Selinger backed off today on what had been a firm government commitment to balance the province’s books by 2014.

At a news conference this morning in advance of this afternoon’s throne speech, Selinger said Finance Minister Stan Struthers would have more to say on provincial efforts to balance the books next month when he releases his second-quarter budget report.

Selinger said the government’s goal is to see progress on narrowing the gap between revenues and expenditures "every single year."

He noted that the international economy is softening and that federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in a report last week, said that Ottawa may have to extend its own timeline for balancing its books.

At the news conference, Selinger did not say what the province’s new timetable might be for getting its budget into the black. But 2014 no longer seems to be a hard and fast date.

"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.

"We’re giving ourselves more wiggle room to deal with reality — absolutely. I am creating more space to look at the reality that is in front of all governments in Canada right now."

After running up a $1 billion deficit in 2011-2012, due largely to a devastating 2011 flood, the government projected a $460 million deficit for the current fiscal year.

Next month, Struthers will report whether the province is on track to meet its projections for this year and beyond.

This past spring, Struthers projected a $176 million deficit for 2013-2014 and a small surplus in 2014-2015.

With money tight, the government made few big spending commitments as it unveiled its throne speech this afternoon.

In fact, it promised to reduce the size of the civil service through attrition by 600 positions in the next three years and vowed that increases in health spending would rise by half the rate it has over the past dozen years.

The government set a target of adding 75,000 more workers to its labour force by 2020, which would exceed current job growth rates by about 30 per cent. The Premier’s Economic Advisory Council will convene a skill summit to advise the government on how it can reach the ambitious jobs goal.

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 set the locations for new schools in Waverley West and Sage Creek

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.

Also on the education front, it promised to fund the development of a ground-breaking urban and inner-city studies program at the University of Winnipeg, new nursing programs at St. Boniface University, and permanent funding for a first-in Canada masters of psychiatric nursing at Brandon University.

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.

It also said it would introduce new measures to protect consumers in the areas of home construction, automobile sales and cable bills.

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

The province also plans new rules against drunk driving to be in place in time for the holiday season.

As well, it will introduce legislation to improve access to public buildings for Manitobans with disabilities.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, November 19, 2012 at 3:07 PM CST: Adds picture from the throne speech.

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