Manitoba Hydro was once again at the centre of a political scrap as the NDP promised to freeze electricity rates while the government held firm to its proposed five per cent cap.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Tuesday Manitobans would not be subject to hydro bill increases if his party forms government in the next election, due by Oct. 3, 2023.
While he was short on specifics — he pledged details about the proposed rate freeze would be provided closer to the election — Kinew said Manitobans deserve a break on their electricity bill.
“The government can establish the conditions under which you would ensure that the PUB would return a rate freeze, or better,” he said.
It could be achieved by creating “an environment” for zero per cent increases before a rate application is before the Public Utilities Board, he argued. He would not say how long rate increases could be held at zero per cent.
“We need the independent oversight of the PUB,” Kinew noted, saying a rate freeze would require PUB approval. “We want to ensure that this is going to be in the best interest of the long-term financial sustainability of Hydro.”
He challenged the Progressive Conservatives to do the same. The NDP brought forward two amendments to Bill 36, The Manitoba Hydro Amendment and Public Utilities Board Amendment Act, on Tuesday.
The proposed amendments to the government bill would freeze rates during the “transitional period,” defined as starting the day parts of the bill affecting electricity rates come into force and ending prior to the start of the rate period in April 2025.
The NDP amendments were voted down Tuesday.
Bill 36 has been designated by the government to pass this legislative session.
The legislation would cap electricity rates at five per cent, or at the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, starting April 2025. It also sets aggressive debt-reduction targets and establishes multi-year rate-setting.
The contentious bill was sharply criticism by industry and the public during hearings in October. A group representing major industrial electricity users in Manitoba warned the proposed legislation could spark an exodus of businesses over the next two decades.
Critics argue the bill threatens the transparency and fairness of the PUB and will lead to rate increases in excess of what is necessary for the financial stability of Hydro.
After months of accusing the government of interfering with rate-setting, the New Democrats are tying to meddle with the independent regulator, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said.
“The NDP is flip-flopping on a major issue they’ve been raising,” Friesen said.
Friesen, who is responsible for Manitoba Hydro, said the NDP amendments amount to interference.
“Manitobans must take note of this. This is significant, it is revealing, it shows what we believe to be the case all the time, which is that the NDP will interfere in the role of the regulator,” Friesen said.
The minister said setting debt-reduction targets in law is a “balancing act” when asked whether that requirement will interfere with the regulator’s ability to determine rates.
“Something must be done,” Friesen said.
The PUB must remain independent, said Liberal party Leader Dougald Lamont.
“Manitoba’s largest Crown corporation has become a political football again from two parties that have a history of meddling with it,” Lamont said.
“The PUB is reasonable, it’s responsible, it’s independent and it needs to stay that way, and both the PCs and NDP need to stop interfering with it.”