It is widely believed in NDP circles Premier Greg Selinger must, if he is to have any chance at re-election, slay the deficit.
To date, Selinger has made little progress. Unforeseen expenditures -- many directly connected to flood events -- and a stubborn reluctance to invoke deep spending cuts have kept the province mired in red ink. The NDP has virtually no chance of delivering a balanced budget in 2015.
Campaigning with a deficit is a little like going to the prom with a big red angry pimple on your forehead. In other words, not a pretty sight.
If there was any hope, it was thanks to a quirk in the fixed-date election law, Selinger appeared as if he would get an extra year to balance the budget before facing voters.
Right now, it seems all but certain the next election will be pushed back from Oct. 6, 2015 -- as specified in the fixed-date election law -- to April 21, 2016. The law states if federal and provincial elections overlap in any calendar year, the latter should be moved to the following April. With a federal vote widely expected in October 2015, that would push back Manitoba's election to the following April and give Selinger an entire additional year to get the deficit under control.
Campaigning with a deficit is a little like going to the prom with a big red angry pimple on your forehead
At least, that's what we all thought.
Provincial sources confirmed another section in Manitoba's election laws may stop Selinger from delivering a budget in April 2016.
Sec. 92 of the Elections Finances Act prohibits the government from publishing or advertising any announcement or initiative "in the last 90 days before polling day, and on polling day, in the case of a fixed-date election."
Traditionally, Manitoba tables a budget sometime in March or April. However, the 90-day blackout means the province would have to bring in a budget no later than Jan. 19, 2016.
A spokesman for Selinger's office said with current resources, meeting that date is impossible. The province also needs to see a federal budget before setting its own fiscal plan. Ottawa tables its budgets in February or March.
It is pretty safe to say this is an unintended blind spot in the legislation. The law does permit the province to table a budget should it conflict with a byelection campaign. But on the matter of a general election, the law is oddly silent.
Section 56 has been a flashpoint between the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives in the past. Former NDP finance minister Rosann Wowchuk was found guilty in 2009 of violating this section when she delivered a government cheque in Brandon while byelection campaigns were ongoing in Winnipeg and The Pas.
The 2011 campaign saw several complaints from the Tories about Sec. 56 violations. One centred on a NDP campaign announcement of a partnership with True North Sports and Entertainment -- owners of the Winnipeg Jets -- on a youth-at-risk sports program. Another complaint was sparked when Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux delivered a government cheque for new playground equipment in Landmark, also during the campaign.
The value of this section of the Election Finances Act is very much up for debate. In theory, stopping a ruling party from using government resources to further its electoral aspirations just before and during a campaign period is a worthy goal. In reality, however, it's a very imperfect solution that causes more problems than it solves.
There are exceptions: public health or safety announcements, communication related to emergency measures or natural disasters, and ongoing crown corporation advertising. Where does a budget rank in the spectrum of government announcements? This entirely imperfect law offers us no guidance.
The politics surrounding this dilemma could be quite fascinating.
Tory house leader Kelvin Goertzen said he does not think the original law ever intended to stop the tabling of a budget. Goertzen suggested the province get an opinion from Elections Manitoba about whether a budget could be tabled, and if so, what restrictions should be placed on publicizing the details of that spending plan.
Even so, Goertzen could not say whether his party would support efforts to allow the NDP to table a budget within the blackout period.
Where does the NDP go from here?
Selinger could, theoretically, introduce an amendment this fall that permits a budget to be tabled inside the 90-day blackout, perhaps with restrictions on advertising. However, there is no guarantee the Tories would not seize on that amendment and use it against the NDP in the next election campaign.
It appears the NDPers could be trapped by a law of their own making. That means few, if any voters, will be sympathetic to their dilemma.
And that may mean even fewer will be sympathetic enough to give them another term in office.
How big a political problem for the NDP would be an election call without a budget? Join the conversation in the comments below.