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Manitoba legislature starts spring sitting with budget, rogue member

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Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard enters the budget lockup room to give a news conference before presenting the budget in the Legislative Chamber.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard enters the budget lockup room to give a news conference before presenting the budget in the Legislative Chamber.

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger will face questions over his government's budget and calls for an inquiry into an immigration debate when the spring legislature sitting starts Thursday.

But there's one thing he won't have to worry about — Independent member Christine Melnick. The longtime cabinet minister, who was ousted from the NDP caucus last month, said Wednesday she remains loyal to the party and will not vote with the opposition.

"I am a New Democrat and it doesn't really matter where I'm sitting in the house or what label has been placed upon me," she said.

"I'll be voting with the NDP because I'm a New Democrat."

Melnick has a lot of inside information about the governing party. She spent a decade in various cabinet portfolios, including child and family services and immigration, before being dumped from the front benches last fall.

Melnick said she has been approached by other parties but isn't interested.

"There have been soft touches from other parties, but I've just been very clear that this is not about crossing the floor."

Brian Pallister, leader of the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, said his party has not approached Melnick.

"I don't want to be engaged in a solicitation campaign to lure disgruntled NDP (members) ... I'd rather keep my eye on the ball."

Melnick was granted office space in the legislature this week, but has yet to find out what level of funding she'll receive, whether she will be allotted time in question period and whether she will get a seat on committees.

Melnick's old office was among other New Democrats. Her new one is adjacent to Jon Gerrard, the lone Liberal legislature member.

The spring sitting begins with a government budget that by all accounts is expected to be status quo. Finance Minister Jennifer Howard has said there will be no big surprises and no significant tax increases or cuts.

The Tories will spend part of the sitting pressing for a legislature committee inquiry into the event that got Melnick booted from the NDP caucus.

Melnick initially denied ordering civil servants to invite government-funded immigrant service agency workers to watch a legislature debate in April 2012, even if it meant taking the afternoon off work.

Last December, the provincial ombudsman revealed Melnick was indeed behind the plan and said it raised questions about partisanship in the civil service. Selinger said he and his staff were not involved.

Melnick broke ranks last month and said Selinger's staff were involved from the start and had told her she would have to take the blame to protect the premier. She was turfed from caucus the following day.

Pallister said the public needs to know who is telling the truth — the premier or Melnick — and exactly when Selinger knew Melnick had falsely denied ordering bureaucrats to send the invitations.

"The government doesn't seem to want to answer these questions, but they're fair questions and they deserve to be answered."

Even if Melnick were to turn against the government, her vote would not make much of a difference. The NDP has a solid majority with 36 of 57 legislature seats. The Tories have 19 and the Liberals have one.

NDP support has dropped sharply in opinion polls since the government raised the provincial sales tax last year to eight per cent from seven. With two years to go before the next election, the government is working to show voters that the extra tax revenue is being used for roads, bridges and other basic infrastructure.

It revealed details Wednesday of a five-year, $5.5-billion infrastructure spending plan across government departments. The province said the spending amount is historic, but could not provide the amount spent in the last five years as a comparison.

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