Calls are growing louder for the Progressive Conservative government to kill a bill that critics say will neuter Manitoba’s public utilities’ rate-setting watchdog.
The number of registered presenters who plan to speak to a legislative committee about Bill 36 (the Manitoba Hydro Amendment and Public Utilities Board Amendment Act), once the legislature resumes sitting next month, has quadrupled over the summer, from a handful to 20 as of Thursday.
“We know that a lot of Manitobans are against this bill,” said Alex Buchner, spokesman for Protect the PUB Coalition.
The coalition argues Bill 36 threatens the transparency and fairness of the independent agency’s “impartial, evidence-based process for determining electricity rates.”
Minister Cameron Friesen was not made available to comment on the bill he introduced, but an unnamed government spokesman said the PCs have no intention of withdrawing it.
“We look forward to further debate on Bill 36 when the legislature resumes,” it said.
“Our government’s plan is to protect Manitoba Hydro’s low cost advantage to ratepayers, stabilize Manitoba Hydro’s debt services, and improve the ability of the regulator to have oversight of future major capital projects; oversight that was sorely lacking under the former government when Keeyask and Bipole III projects went billions of dollars over budget.”
The coalition has launched an information campaign against the bill, arguing the PUB has successfully balanced the financial health of Manitoba Hydro with the interests of ratepayers for decades, and that a large majority of Manitobans support the independent rate-setting process.
Bill 36 is similar to legislation shelved by the Tories after former premier Brian Pallister resigned. Bill 35 would’ve allowed cabinet to set annual hydro rate increases without oversight by the Public Utilities Board until 2023, with the PUB approving rates in five-year intervals rather than annually from then on.
It was one of five bills killed by the PCs under caretaker premier Kelvin Goertzen,with the explanation that “a new leader has to be able to set their own agenda.”
The new bill would have hydro rates set every three years, which would save the cost of holding a PUB rate application hearing every year — “a very expensive process” for which hydro bears the cost, Friesen said after introducing Bill 36 in March.
Until then, annual electricity rate increases will be capped at the rate of inflation to a maximum five per cent “to provide certainty and assurances to Manitobans,” the finance minister said at the time.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Manitoba Hydro critic Adrien Sala held a press conference Thursday with front-line Hydro workers from Unifor in which they called on the PCs to kill Bill 36 immediately.
“With the fall and winter months approaching, Manitobans can’t afford a five per cent increase to their hydro bills like Bill 36 calls for,” Kinew said.
“Hydro is going to have a banner year,” said Sala, who blamed the PCs for two strikes at Hydro in two years. Instead of helping Manitobans who are struggling with rising prices “the PCs have cooked up a strategy to raise your rates as soon as possible,” the member for St. James said.
The PC government statement dismissed what it called “the NDP’s recycled complaints.”
“Manitobans,” it said, “understand that 40 cents of every dollar currently received at Manitoba Hydro goes towards debt-servicing costs. Bill 36 is a comprehensive plan to put Hydro back on a path to financial stability.”
The Consumers Association of Canada has said the bill’s proposed debt-to-capital targets are worrisome. They appear to require Manitoba Hydro to bring in what amounts to close to an additional $5 billion in revenues.
Some of that would come from export sales, but to the extent that it comes from rates, that would put significant above-inflation rate pressures on consumers for many years to come, the association warned.
No date has been set yet for a Bill 36 committee hearing, which is required for it to become law.
Buchner, of the Protect the PUB Coalition, expects the list of presenters registered to speak directly to government about it will only grow.
“I think that’s a powerful way for people to communicate their feelings about this bill,” he said.