Manitoba's health-care workers and 13,500 civil servants could save their financially strapped province "in excess of $100 million" by accepting wage freezes over the next two years.
The figure, supplied by Finance Department officials Wednesday, assumes workers don't get a two per cent wage hike in each of the next two years.
If the workers don't play along, it will throw Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk's spending estimates out of whack.
Wowchuk's budget Tuesday projected a $545-million deficit for the coming fiscal year. On Wednesday, she confirmed she assumed a wage freeze in her departmental spending estimates.
Manitoba's nurses are in the midst of bargaining a new deal, while civil servants begin negotiations in the next few weeks. "Our goal is to get contracts at zeroes for a couple of years and if we can't do that then we will have to look at other options," Wowchuk said. Those options would include layoffs and delaying implementation of certain programs, she said.
Peter Olfert, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union (MGEU), questioned how the government arrived at the $100-million figure. He said a two per cent increase for unionized civil servants, for instance, would cost only $14 million per year. "My question back to them is, where would they cut?" Olfert said of the finance minister's implied threat. Already, smaller departments have significant staff vacancy rates, he said.
He said the MGEU would be seeking "a reasonable" wage increase for civil servants. The union also represents some of the health-care workers targeted for freezes.
Aside from nurses, the province will also be seeking wage freezes for occupational and physiotherapists, pharmacists, lab and other technologists, ultrasound sonographers and dieticians in its employ, the government spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, in question period on Wednesday, the opposition pounced on Wowchuk and Premier Greg Selinger for putting the province into four years of deficit budgets and deeper in debt when they could have squirrelled away more money when times were good.
Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said the NDP's budget plan, which forecasts $2 billion in deficits over the next five years, is Selinger's legacy as finance minister before becoming premier last fall after Gary Doer stepped down to become Canadian ambassador to the U.S.
"Last year at this time he predicted a balanced budget and nine months later it turned out he was $600 million off," McFadyen said. "He's got no credibility when it comes to five-year projections never mind one-year projections."
McFadyen also hammered the NDP for its plan to amend the balanced budget legislation so it can legally run four years of deficits. Right now, the province need only balance its books on a four-year rolling average. "Can the new premier now confirm that with Mr. Doer out of the way, that the old socialist NDP is back with a vengeance?" he said.
Making do with less: where the money isn't
To provide large increases in health care and other priority areas, Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk slashed spending of dozens of government services and programs, big and small, on Tuesday. Here is a selection:
Public library services will be cut $143,000 to $7.05 million
The Archives of Manitoba will make do with $257,000 less
Farm-risk management and income support programs will be cut $7.1 million to $136.6 million
Environmental stewardship programs (including the implementation of climate change initiatives) will be cut $2.9 million (to $10.5 million)
The fire and emergency response program will be given $527,000 less
Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade will spend $4 million less on labour-market skills development
The consumers bureau, which tries to resolve disputes between consumers and businesses, will get a $100,000 cut
A government section that provides services to the mining and petroleum industries is being cut $1.8 million, while mineral industry support programs are taking a $1.6-million hit
Energy development initiatives (including alternate energy development) is getting $200,000 less
The Justice Department is receiving an overall increase, but its victims services and aboriginal and community law enforcement programs will sustain small cuts
The Manitoba Labour Board, which helps resolve disputes between workers and employers, is losing $73,000 in funding
Manitoba Status of Women is losing nearly $50,000 in funding
Ecological services, which provides research and monitoring of Manitoba water and fisheries, is losing $613,000
And the province will contribute $150,000 less to a federal-provincial agreement on treaty land entitlements.