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Bleeding red until 2017

Selinger says debt will last longer than forecast

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The Selinger government will take two more years than previously planned to balance the province's books.

Premier Greg Selinger and his financial lieutenant, Stan Struthers, told the Free Press on Monday their new target for getting Manitoba out of the red is the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Until last month, the government had stuck to a more than two-year-old pledge to balance the books by 2014-15. But in backing off that promise -- on the day of the throne speech -- the province had not set a new timetable.

Selinger will detail the government's thinking behind the new fiscal target when he presents his annual state of the province address at the Winnipeg Convention Centre today. The event is sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

The premier said Monday the new timeline is based on continued global economic uncertainty.

"The reality is that we're seeing a global recovery which is fitful and uncertain and, on the evidence, seems to be slower than previous recessions," Selinger said, noting the federal government and virtually every other Canadian province is in the same boat.

A month ago, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty amended his timetable for putting the nation's finances back into the black. Instead of a balanced budget by 2015-16, Flaherty said it would take Ottawa another year to reach its goal.

Selinger will explain to the chamber today lower projected economic growth, growing health, corrections and family services costs and the effects of federal belt-tightening are behind the new timeline.

The government refuses to entertain deep budget cuts to balance the books. Instead, it will attempt to put the brakes on spending growth while focusing on skills training to prepare the economy for an impending mass retirement of baby boomers.

"Our plan is that every year we're going to reduce that gap between our revenues and our expenditures. We've been working on that; we're going to continue to work on that," Struthers said.

Manitoba ran a record $999-million deficit in 2011-12, in part because of the devastating 2011 Assiniboine River flood.

This spring, Struthers projected a $460-million deficit for the current fiscal year. Manitobans will get the opportunity to assess whether the government is on track to meet that target when the province releases its second-quarter financial report as early as next week.

The delay in wiping out the deficit could mean the NDP will face an election without balancing the books.

Under the province's fixed-date election rules, Manitobans will go to the polls on April 19, 2016. The date might be moved up to Oct. 6, 2015, if Ottawa abandons plans for a federal vote that same month. Manitoba passed legislation earlier this year to avoid the spectacle of both a federal and provincial vote within weeks of each other.

The Progressive Conservatives, under Hugh McFadyen, were pilloried during the last provincial election for suggesting Manitoba's books could not be balanced before 2018 without tax hikes or cuts to front-line services. The Tories also said at the time the NDP was underestimating the budgetary impact of the 2011 flood.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2012 A5

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