Manitoba financial forecasts secret under information law: Finance dept.

The Manitoba Finance department has refused to release any documents forecasting deficits or surpluses beyond 2017 for what it calls the summary budget. File / John Woods / The Canadian Press

WINNIPEG – The Manitoba government appears to have financial forecasts that outline when the province might return to a fully balanced budget as required by provincial law, but it is not making them public.

The Finance department has refused to release any documents forecasting deficits or surpluses beyond 2017 for what it calls the summary budget — an overall plan that includes Crown corporations and is used to determine whether the government is abiding by the province’s balanced-budget law.

The forecasts were prepared for the NDP cabinet and as such, must be kept secret under the freedom-of-information law that shields virtually any cabinet document from public release, finance officials say.

“Releasing this record could reasonably be expected to reveal the deliberations of cabinet as it relates to the formulation of government decisions and policy,” reads a written response from the Finance department to a freedom of information request by The Canadian Press.

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Such documents might be available to the public in provinces such as Alberta and Nova Scotia, where the secrecy imposed on cabinet documents is limited to recommendations. In those provinces, analysis and other background information is specifically cited as public information under freedom of information laws.

The NDP has been running deficits since the 2009-10 fiscal year and originally promised to be back in black by 2015. Three years ago, the target was pushed back to 2017.

Earlier this year, the government pushed back the target again, to 2019, and added that only the core government budget will be balanced. The core budget deals primarily with government departments and does not include many public agencies and Crown corporations, such as Manitoba Hydro.

Finance Minister Greg Dewar released projections in his spring budget which predict declining deficits in the coming years and a small surplus in the core budget of $24 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

The challenge for Dewar is that the balanced budget law requires the summary budget — not just the core — to be balanced. He said the government will likely amend the law to switch to core budget later this spring.

Dewar said the core budget is a fairer way to declare whether the budget is balanced, because it does not include items such as losses at Manitoba Public Insurance — the Crown corporation that has a monopoly on vehicle insurance in the province.

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“We just don’t feel that a bad winter, which could hurt MPI’s bottom line, should impact our ability to provide services to Manitobans,” he said, referring to a spike in insurance claims that can come with icy roads.

Opposition finance critic Cameron Friesen said the government may have abandoned plans to stop deficits anytime in the near future.

“Does the government have a plan to balance the budget, and if so, when? Those are questions the finance minister has declined to answer.”

Friesen also said the core accounting method could allow the government to take money out of a Crown corporation and count it as new revenue to balance the budget.

Dewar said the government will still report its financial plan in both summary and core formats every year when the budget is tabled, but the projections for future years will be on the core budget only.

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