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NDP looks for excuses

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Manitoba's NDP government says 18,000 missing Manitobans -- the number it says the 2011 Census did not count -- are worth $500 million over the next few years to the province's treasury.

According to Finance Minister Jennifer Howard, that's the value of federal transfer payments the province will not receive because Statistics Canada doesn't know how to count.

It's a totally misleading and inaccurate explanation of why the province is facing a fiscal crisis, just another flimsy attempt to divert attention from its financial mismanagement.

Statistics Canada disputes the suggestion it owes Manitoba another 18,000 people, saying the response rate here -- 97.4 per cent -- was the second highest of the provinces. The agency also added nearly 22,000 people to the rolls since 2011 as part of its ongoing efforts to update population estimates.

It's the same process used across Canada, but the Selinger government says StatsCan would have missed people who were displaced during the flood two years ago. Several thousand people were dislocated, but many were aboriginals from First Nations, where the number of residents is known.

Ms. Howard said the province also knows it is being short-changed because the number of people filing income tax returns in Manitoba is growing at a faster rate than calculated by Statistics Canada.

The increase may be the result of more people entering or returning to the workforce. Some 5,600 jobs, for example, were added to the Manitoba economy last year. This is the first time Manitoba has disputed the official numbers.

The province will receive $2,663 in federal transfer and equalization payments per capita this year. That's less than $50 million a year for the missing 18,000 people -- assuming they are real -- but Ms. Howard is suggesting the alleged under-accounting could cost the province $100 million in next spring's budget.

The real problem, however, is a new federal formula for calculating health transfers that could, in fact, cost the province millions of dollars. The formula used to include an equalization component that assisted poorer provinces, but the Harper government now calculates on a straight per-capita basis.

There's no question Manitoba could be in for tough times, but the Selinger government was well aware two years ago that the federal gravy train was coming to an end.

Ms. Howard said the revenue loss, which she attributes in part to Statistics Canada, could mean health care funding will need to be trimmed.

But Finance Minister Jim Flaherty had warned the provinces they needed to overhaul their systems and find new ways of delivering better service.

The NDP responded by increasing spending across the board, particularly health, because it said that's what Manitobans wanted.

They avoided making tough decisions and were politically averse to innovation, fearing they might lose their edge over the opposition Conservatives.

The NDP's idea of innovation was an increase in the PST, which it claims will be spent on infrastructure. Now, after twice revising its schedule for eliminating the deficit, Ms. Howard says it might not be possible to reach that goal by 2016-17.

The government is grasping at straws in a desperate attempt to explain why the days of easy spending must come to an end.

The NDP has been very adept at ruling in good times, when bad headlines could be made to vanish with a quick announcement of new spending, but it's finding it more difficult to manage at a time when hard choices need to be made.

The province claims it has a revenue problem, not a spending addiction, but it's known for many year that cynical approach is a prescription for economic disaster. Business as usual and lame excuses won't cut it any longer.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 A14

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Updated on Thursday, December 19, 2013 at 8:07 AM CST: adds image

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