You can’t get there from here.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/4/2017 (1750 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Editorial

You can’t get there from here.

It’s one of those navigational notations no traveller wants to hear — a tacit confirmation you unwittingly may have been headed in the wrong direction.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Finance Minister Cameron Friesen delivers the budget in the Manitoba Legislature Tuesday.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen delivers the budget in the Manitoba Legislature Tuesday.

The government of Premier Brian Pallister seems to have reached one of those moments of realization with its 2017 budget, charting a financial course for Manitoba that appears to be headed somewhere other than the balanced-budget destination promised in the Progressive Conservatives’ 2016 election campaign.

It’s highly unlikely the Tories can get there from here — at least not within the time frame that’s been promised in the "Responsible Recovery" budget document.

For clarity, Tuesday’s budgetary "here" is a treasury still facing a $750-million deficit; the "there" is the promised elimination of the provincial deficit within two terms in office and the rollback of the provincial sales tax to seven per cent within one term. To get from here to there, the province may need to recalibrate its budgetary compass readings.

Rather than the starkly austere blueprint most expected and many feared in the wake of cost-cutting demands imposed on Manitoba Hydro and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, the spending plan delivered by Finance Minister Cameron Friesen is a cautious document — in his own words, "moderate and responsible" — that includes no new taxes and a very modest overall increase in government spending.

Infrastructure spending increases slightly, but the modest change includes a sizable reduction in spending for highways, offset by a significant increase for water-related (flood relief) infrastructure.

Health care and education, the two most important departments in government, will see more funding. However, the increases are so small they will not cover basic inflation. Some will see that as a cut — and rightly so.

Perhaps it’s the case that Mr. Pallister has redefined where "there" is.

His first budget as premier, delivered just weeks after his party’s resounding defeat of the ailing New Democrats, was a predictably muted affair produced as the new government sought to understand the financial predicament it had been left by its predecessors.

The months that followed were filled with tough talk about reframing Manitoba’s financial future. The widely held expectation was Tuesday’s budget would deliver the practical application of those hard-truth declarations.

Instead, it promises modest reductions in the provincial deficit over the next three years, from $800 million this year to $585 million three years from now.

Those figures, however, do not include Mr. Pallister’s promise to eliminate former premier Greg Selinger’s massively unpopular PST increase. Reducing the PST to seven per cent by 2020, as pledged by the Progressive Conservatives before last spring’s election, effectively would wipe out whatever incremental progress Mr. Pallister achieves on the deficit-reduction front.

The premier very well may be facing a tough choice in the next few years. Will he ramp up the austerity to get to his original "there" or choose to redefine the "there" he wants to reach?

The road to a balanced budget is long. And winding. And bumpy. Perhaps a moderate navigational approach, coupled with a more reachable destination, is what Mr. Pallister needs to embrace in order to keep the province’s fiscal fortunes from careening into the ditch.