A contentious bill proposing significant changes to the Public Utilities Board and Manitoba Hydro was slammed at a committee meeting that narrowly avoided being brought to a premature conclusion.
More than two dozen people aired their grievances with Bill 36 (Manitoba Hydro Amendment and Public Utilities Board Amendment Act) during a six-hour meeting of the standing committee on social and economic development Thursday evening.
“Bill 36 sets up the (PUB) to be little more than a rubber stamp,” Patricia Fitzpatrick, a professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg, told committee members including Finance Minister Cameron Friesen.
On Thursday, the committee met for the first of three scheduled meetings to hear from Manitobans about the Progressive Conservative government’s bill, which would cap annual electricity rate increases at inflation or five per cent, whichever is lower; establish multi-year rate setting; and put aggressive debt-to-capital ratios in statute.
At least 52 people registered to speak to the bill during the committee stage.
“Bill 36 strips the ability of the PUB to review financial targets for the reasonableness and gives that authority to the legislature,” said Fitzpatrick, an expert on environmental governance. “It strips the authority of the PUB to review the day-to-day capital spending and gives that authority to treasury board.
“These are very important tools that PUB has used to protect ratepayers.”
Friesen (minister responsible for Hydro) and Labour Minister Reg Helwer (responsible for the PUB) repeatedly heard concerns over transparency, unnecessary rate increases, political interference, and reduced authority for the rate-setting watchdog.
Overwhelmingly, presenters urged the Progressive Conservative government to kill Bill 36, or at least take their proposed changes to voters in the next general election, due by Oct. 3, 2023.
CUPE Local 998 president Michelle Bergen said she worries Bill 36 will open up Manitoba Hydro to privatization and censure the PUB. The union represents technical and clerical workers with the Crown corporation.
The legislation would turn the PUB “from an independent third-party into a handmaiden of the government,” Bergen said.
Friesen defended the proposed legislation, adding if it had been in place 20 years ago, it may have prevented rate increases above inflation in 2004, 2008 and 2012. The sustainability of the utility is directly connected to its ability to offer lower rates, he said, adding 40 cents on every dollar goes to debt repayment at Hydro.
“There is no secret agenda here to privatize Hydro,” Friesen assured presenters Thursday.
At about 11:30 p.m., nearly 30 people were still on the list to speak, the majority of whom had already been called earlier in the evening and were not present.
With 30 minutes left before the meeting would conclude, committee chairman and Radisson MLA James Teitsma began to read the names of presenters for a second time.
Speakers who are not present when their name is called a second time lose their opportunity to present.
In response, NDP Hydro critic Adrien Sala and finance critic Mark Wasyliw raised numerous unsuccessful points of order, motions, and requests for leave in a bid to talk out the clock and push the meeting into a second day.
“If we do proceed with calling out their names, they will be eliminated from the list. I think that’s unjust. Those folks should have the opportunity to participate,” Sala said. “The concern here is the purging of the list.”
“They knew the time, the date, they knew the duration of these proceedings, and we were happy to invite them because we believe in this process,” Friesen said in response to the NDP.
After about 20 minutes of stalling by the Opposition critics, Teitsma continued to read names off the list, eventually calling Elizabeth Hamilton, who had jumped on the virtual presentation platform at the last minute.
Hamilton said she had been expecting to speak Tuesday, based on information provided by the clerk.
“I was not expecting to speak right now. That’s not the information I had, nor did I know or know to expect, that we’d go until midnight,” she said.
“This speaks also to my concerns about the Public Utilities Board and the reduction in consultation and in the public’s ability to speak and be heard on those matters,” Hamilton continued.
“That does not inspire confidence to me in our current government’s ability to navigate changes in the Public Utilities Board.”
The next meeting of the standing committee on social and economic development is scheduled for Oct. 11.