Manitoba government eyeing more private liquor sales, fewer subsidies

The province is looking to the private sector more involved in liquor sales. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The Manitoba government is eyeing more private-sector involvement in liquor sales and fewer subsidies to some major cultural venues in downtown Winnipeg.

The two belt-tightening goals are among many marching orders given to the province’s Crown corporations on Tuesday.

The letters from Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer come three years into the Progressive Conservative government’s eight-year plan to balance the budget and end a string of deficits started in 2009 by the former NDP government.

“Engage with the private sector to identify opportunities for increased participation in the liquor retail and distribution sectors,” reads a section of the letter to the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp.

READ MORE: Bag checks, bottle locks among new measures to combat Liquor Mart robberies

The corporation is also tasked with looking for ways to cut the cost of obtaining alcohol – possibly by shared purchasing with other provinces. It has also been told to generate more profit that can be turned over to government coffers.

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“Increase the dividend paid to the province through the development and implementation of operational efficiencies,” the letter states.

Mayer said she does not envisage a fully private alcohol retail sector and details are to be determined. The province currently has a combination of government stores with a full line of alcohol products, private wine stores, private beer vendors and small private liquor outlets in some rural communities.

The Opposition New Democrats and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union were critical of the move to more private-sector involvement.

“Research shows the public liquor sales system works the best. It’s the most socially responsible when it comes to ensuring alcohol doesn’t end up in the hands of minors or those already intoxicated,” union president Michelle Gawronsky said in a written statement.

The Manitoba Centennial Centre Corp., which operates the Manitoba Museum, a theatre and a concert hall in downtown Winnipeg, is being told to find a way to become self-sufficient within five years. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the corporation received $2.5 million in provincial operating grants and recorded a surplus of $173,000.

Mayer was unable to specify what would be deemed self-sufficient. She said the province is not looking to eliminate the operating grants completely.

“The board is the ones that are looking at what that looks like for themselves,” Mayer said.

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“They’re going to present some ideas and prioritize what that means specifically.”

READ MORE: Manitoba continues to lower deficit in 2019 budget

Crown corporations, which also include Manitoba Hydro, Efficiency Manitoba, and Manitoba Public Insurance, are all being told to keep management costs down, to limit advertising and to look for salary savings.

“We ask you to review all compensation agreements … to ensure alignment with government policies and practices. The expectation is that compensation practices will reflect the principles of responsible fiscal management and protect the sustainability of services,” reads a paragraph repeated in all five mandate letters.

The Tory government has already ordered a wage freeze for public-sector workers as each collective agreement expires. Labour unions are challenging in court the bill that enforces that freeze. The government is predicting a deficit of $360 million for the current fiscal year – $161 million smaller than the deficit last year.

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