Graham Lane

  • WCB model is an outdated, expensive relic

    Manitoba employers will be hit with higher payroll costs under a plan that will boost premiums for workers compensation. Besides adding staff and functions to the government's Worker Advisor Office, funded by employers through Workers Compensation Board assessments, and massively raising the maximum fine for claim suppression, the government plans to change how employers' annual WCB assessments are calculated. The proposed change to setting employer assessments is highly dubious and suggests the government is moving backward, instead of forward, in managing the operation of workers compensation.
  • Expand auditor's mandate

    The next auditor general should have broader mandate that includes the ability to review and comment on government policy decisions. The provincial government has taken a much too leisurely approach to appointing a new auditor general. Carol Bellringer has retired after having given a year's notice. With such a slow replacement process, one might think the position isn't very important, but it is.
  • Tear up open-gov't memo

    After a good start, asserting an interest in being open, transparent and accountable, the Selinger government has become increasingly opaque. Government administers legislation and policies that, ostensibly, allow us to receive information on their actions. Manitoba's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) supposedly makes government be open. But provisions within FIPPA contradict the legislation's alleged purpose and allow for the withholding of information. And, if release of information sought isn't blocked by a provision of the act, then the cost levied for providing the material is often high enough to discourage the asker.
  • Government should sock it away, in case

    Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ant comes to mind when considering Manitoba's NDP government and its spending and borrowing. In the fable, the grasshopper dances and plays as summer and fall come and go. Meanwhile the ant, while also enjoying the pleasant days before winter, plans for its arrival by storing away enough food to outlast the winter. When winter came, the grasshopper begged the ant to share the food stocks the ant had wisely put away.
  • Manitoba is falling ever further behind

    With Manitoba's population increasing (mainly due to immigration), KPMG's business competitiveness survey rating Winnipeg as a low-cost place to do business, and a new StatsCan report showing Winnipeg head office jobs increased in 2012, it is easy to be complacent about Manitoba's prospects. Yet, storm clouds approach.
  • Whistleblowers deserve more support

    Edward Snowden (American), Julian Assange (Australian), and Bradley, now known as Chelsea, Manning (American) are famous recent whistleblowers. Blowing the whistle is not for the faint of heart. These people paid with their freedom. Yet, in our political climate of widespread government control, an arena where openness and transparency is usually lacking, whistleblowing is in the public interest. An Economist article titled The Enemy Within claimed: "the most powerful weapon against (misdeeds) is... a whistleblower."
  • Best option for Hydro in future

    With announcements coming as regular as church bells ringing on a Sunday morning, it is clear that regardless of reason, risk and ratepayers' pocketbooks, the Selinger NDP government will push Manitoba Hydro into a potentially devastating expansion. With the Clean Environment Commission and Public Utilities Board acting more like government lapdogs instead of neutral and objective public sounding boards, the likelihood the government will order a halt to the expansion is smaller than the likelihood of 30 C weather tomorrow.
  • Selinger spins electricity export sales

    Premier Greg Selinger has announced more future export sales of Manitoba Hydro's electricity to American utilities. His spin reminds me of the old adage: When something seems too good to be true, watch out! With his latest announcement, the line between the NDP government and its captive utility has been erased. It must be embarrassing for the once-proud Hydro to find itself again playing second fiddle to a government full of self-praise.
  • Hydro's ownership of Centra Gas remains conflicted

    Natural gas is in the news. Price increases due to cold weather; the increasing use of gas for electricity generation; a spectacular explosion of a portion of TransCanada's pipeline south of Winnipeg; a call by Pembina Valley for natural gas service for its fast-growing communities; experts recommending fuel diversity for our hydro-focused utility; and the ongoing controversy over fracking. Centra Gas was purchased by Hydro from WestCoast Energy in 1999. Hydro paid a pretty penny: $245 million for the shares, $75 million to gain tax-exempt status and, as well, responsibility for $190 million of debt.
  • When the heavens don't open

    PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- In the midst of a multi-year drought, California could use a few feet and more of that high drift of snow that now blocks your view as you approach an intersection. With a population of 38 million and a huge agricultural industry requiring massive amounts of water every year, the cycles of nature bring painful realization too slowly into the conscientiousness of the populace and its political leaders. Manitoba also experiences wide weather fluctuations. Some years bring floods, other years too little water. Climatologists say we should expect increased weather variability in the future, bringing both years of higher than normal temperatures and precipitation and others of too much cold and too little water. We need to act now to prepare for the next drought.
  • Independent analysts join chorus of Hydro critics

    Perhaps, and hopefully, the Selinger government and its captive utility, Manitoba Hydro, will listen to the latest voice in a growing chorus calling for a pause and a rethink of what Hydro euphemistically calls its "preferred" development plan. La Capra Associates, an American energy consultancy engaged by the Public Utilities Board to provide an independent and objective assessment of Hydro's $22-billion hydroelectric dams and transmission plan, has given it a failing grade.
  • 'Do-gooders' kept payday loans alive

    For decades it was a criminal offence to charge more than 60 per cent annual interest on a loan. It still is, unless it is a "payday loan." Following pressure by provincial governments and the NDP, payday loans were made legal in Canada. Payday loans can't exceed $1,500, terms to be set by each province. Manitoba has the "toughest" terms. Nonetheless, Manitoba borrowers still pay a flat 17 per cent for a loan repaid on average in 12 days -- an annual interest rate of more than 600 per cent, 10 times the Criminal Code limit. The 60 per cent annual limit still applies for loans of more than $1,500 and for jurisdictions that have not legalized payday loans, such as Quebec.
  • Cabbies, customers deserve better

    Winnipeg's taxi business represents a textbook case of what economists call "regulatory capture" -- the Taxicab Board pays more attention to protecting cab owners' capital gains than the needs of their customers, who want more cabs, better service and lower prices. In a sprawling city like Winnipeg, where the winters are harsh and long, regulatory capture encumbers the industry's ability to fulfil its role as a necessary part of the overall transportation system.
  • Who would buy Manitoba Hydro?

    As the next election approaches, Manitoba's NDP government will likely try to scare the public by trotting out its favourite hoary old political chestnut -- privatization. The NDP will increasingly accuse the opposition of "dark plans" to privatize Manitoba Hydro, just as it did in past provincial elections. It will bank on the general public not being in favour of selling the monopoly utility, and will recall, again and again, the Progressive Conservatives' sale of the telephone company MTS during the Filmon years.
  • A budget that's balanced

    Finance Minister Jennifer Howard seeks advice for the 2014-15 provincial budget. Does she truly want advice, or is the offer made to provide the illusion that government listens to taxpayers? In the 2011 election, the NDP pledged no tax increases. Then it extended the coverage of provincial sales tax and jacked up fees in 2012, before upping the PST rate to eight per cent from seven in 2013. All together these increases, which should have been approved in a referendum, are taking $600 million more from our pockets. Let's review the economic context within which the 2014-15 budget will be presented. Government spending and borrowing have soared since the NDP took power in 1999. Despite the recession being over (2009 was the only year real gross domestic product fell), the government continues to run deficits with its gross debt now $30 billion.
  • Second-quarter financials alarming

    Based on Finance Minister Jennifer Howard's recent update on her government's financial situation, taxpayers should be alarmed. Despite the unexpected tax and fee hikes of the last two years, she not only expects a deficit of close to $500 million for the NDP government's summary 2013-14 accounts, but has also raised doubts balanced annual accounts can be achieved in the years ahead. With considerable fanfare, Howard released the update, asserting her government "is beating its deficit-reduction target." Instead of the $518-million deficit of this year's provincial budget, she now expects one of $485 million. She blames a supposedly faulty census by Statistics Canada for part of this yawning shortfall. The agency denies this, with no complaints about the census coming from any of the other provinces and territories.
  • Win big? Plan to keep it

    Every year, hundreds of Canadians win $1 million or more in a lottery. Occasionally, their prize is so large it changes their lives. We gamble in the hope that one day we will be able to live the big life. The common mistake is that we are bound to be happier if we are better off. But while we fantasize about winning big, few of us are prepared for the consequences. Government feeds our fantasies through advertisements displaying happy people wearing big smiles.
  • A sensible alternative to new dams

    Manitoba Hydro, pressured by the provincial government, continues to spend and make commitments for its $22-billion "preferred development plan." The plan involves the construction of Bipole III, down the extreme west side of the province and through prime agricultural land, and two new northern dams, Keeyask and Conawapa (the dams in partnership with First Nations, their investments largely borrowed from Hydro).
  • Public Utilities Board needs an overhaul

    Despite major missteps taken by the Public Utilities Board with respect to Manitoba Hydro, the PUB is worth saving. That said, it needs a major overhaul. The PUB is supposed to balance the interests of monopoly firms and their customers. The agency has been in operation for 100 years, many of which until recently were spent in obscurity, important mainly to the consultants, lobbyists and applicants that appear at its hearings of Manitoba Hydro, Centra Gas and MPI rate applications.
  • Modern workforce needs new illness, injury insurance

    The Manitoba Federation of Labour recently renewed its chronic complaint about the Workers Compensation Board, alleging the WCB's approach to setting annual premiums for employers provides an incentive for employers to suppress valid claims of workplace injuries and illnesses. Instead of trying to relight an old bonfire, the MFL would better assist both workers and employers by promoting the undertaking of a comprehensive review of what is a long outdated program. What all workers need is 24-hour, year-round comprehensive injury and illness coverage, regardless of cause.
  • A chance for change at MPI

    With Manitoba Public Insurance's Marilyn McLaren having announced her intention to retire, the search for a new president will begin. Before determining the qualifications required, advertising the position and selecting the monopoly auto insurer's new leader, the NDP government should revise its approach to MPI. The provincial government would better serve the interests of MPI's policyholders if it encouraged MPI to be much more transparent with its actions and its plans. At the annual public rate hearings before the Public Utilities Board, MPI should reveal information on all of its operations, anything less from an integrated operation such as MPI does not allow for the comprehensive review needed to ensure fair rates and efficient operations for a mandatory monopoly of the scale and importance of MPI.
  • Fudging on annual utility bills

    If there is anything the Selinger NDP government is good at, it is self-promotion. A report the provincial government commissioned asserted the ratepayers of Manitoba Hydro, its wholly owned subsidiary Centra Gas, and Manitoba Public Insurance -- all monopolies controlled by the government -- have enjoyed the lowest overall annual costs in Canada for electricity, home heating and car insurance.
  • Peeling back the padding on Manitoba Hydro's 'profit'

    MANITOBA Hydro's recent annual report focuses on two myths -- that its reported profit of $92 million is more than adequate, and that the utility's financial position (portrayed as the best in its history) provides a base for it to confidently move ahead with expenditures unprecedented in the province's history without unduly raising rates. Hydro's reported profits are due to accounting choices and rate increases, and its financial position is weak. As it moves ahead to implement its $20-billion gamble on dams and transmission development, Manitobans can anticipate a tripling of rates over the next two decades.
  • Hydro has conflict with gas

    Two energy sources dominate Manitoba's winter heating environment: hydro-generated electricity and natural gas. One, through the electricity grid, has been extended, assisted by significant government and ratepayer subsidies, to cover over 98 per cent of households. The other, natural gas, unlike in Saskatchewan, is restricted to a southwest density-driven "footprint." Heating by electricity is considerably more costly than by natural gas. The average annual bill for a house heated by a high-efficiency gas furnace is $1,193. The same house heated by electricity anticipates an annual cost of $1,621 (37 per cent more). As for water heaters, by gas, an annual cost of $83, by electricity, $259 (312 per cent more than gas).
  • Government to reap more than $200 million a year from Hydro expansion

    Graham Lane, past chairman of Manitoba's Public Utilities Board, begins a weekly column today that will address public policy and finance issues and how they affect Manitobans. His columns will appear on winnipegfreepress.com, where readers can interact directly with Mr. Lane in our comments section. The NDP government is pressuring (if not bullying) Manitoba Hydro into pursuing a massive $20-billion-plus expansion of its transmission and hydroelectric generation infrastructure, a plan based on the premise of profitable sales of excess power to American utilities.

About Graham Lane

Graham Lane is a retired chartered accountant who worked in the public and private sectors for 50 years, concluding his career as chairman of the Manitoba Public Utilities Board.

He has also held key positions at Credit Union Central, Public Investments of Manitoba, the Manitoba Public Insurance Corp., the University of Winnipeg, and the Manitoba Worker's Compensation Board.

Before gaining his CA designation in Quebec, he was third in Canada in the then-national intermediate examination. He has a diploma in business administration from the University of Western Ontario and has served on numerous charitable and service boards.

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