Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP spends and spins

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There is a growing disconnect between the glowing pronouncements of the Manitoba government and cold reality.

On the one hand, "Manitoba's economic fundamentals are strong," the province has "successfully weathered the challenges" posed by the financial crises in Europe and the United States, and "we are dealing with cost pressures in health care, child welfare and public safety."

The speech from the throne Monday goes on and on like that, with one optimistic platitude after another. "Businesses are hiring," the speech says. "Families are... building and renovating homes... housing starts have increased at more than double the national rate."

The only thing missing was a tax cut, but of course there will be no such payoff because the reality is the province is in financial trouble.

Despite all the sanguine news, Premier Greg Selinger was forced to back away from his promise last year to balance the books by 2014, blaming the uncertainty in world markets, the disastrous flood last year and other factors beyond the province's control, including a planned decrease in federal health transfer payments.

He noted the federal government had altered its forecast by one year for achieving a balanced budget, so if the province is unable achieve the goal it set last year -- when conditions were no worse than they are today -- well, everyone is struggling, or so the story goes.

The flood itself could add about $500 million to the provincial debt, while Finance Minister Stan Struthers was expected to deliver a $500-million deficit in his next budget.

It's not a pretty picture.

The throne speech promised a range of efficiencies to remain on track, but they're nothing more than tinkering. The province, the premier said, would trim the civil service by 600 jobs through attrition over three years, regional health authorities have been amalgamated and two Crown corporations merged.

There will be other efforts to streamline and reduce duplication, the premier says, but there is no evidence of a strategic plan or real measures to ensure the province doesn't sink deeper into the glue.

As usual, Mr. Selinger blamed the former government of Gary Filmon, whom most voters under 30 probably can't remember, for making drastic cuts the NDP was then forced to reverse, a tactic that long ago wore thin.

It's been 13 years since the Tories were in power during economic times that were more difficult than now.

The real problem isn't the Filmon legacy, but the government's addiction to spending, which continued to grow long after storm clouds circled the world economy.

In 13 years, the province has increased spending dramatically as it tried to satisfy every constituency and avoid criticism and negative headlines, a political tactic that has cost Manitobans dearly. In health care alone, spending has routinely exceeded the rate of inflation, which the government only now admits is not sustainable.

With generous federal transfers, a diversified economy and a reliable workforce, Manitoba is performing reasonably well, but the days of easy spending must come to an end.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2012 A10

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