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Manitoba government may have to delay promise to freeze hydroelectric rates

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WINNIPEG -

Manitoba's new NDP government may push back a key election promise to freeze hydroelectric rates for one year, due to a worsening fiscal outlook at Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro.

The utility released a second-quarter financial report Friday that forecasts a net loss of $160 million this fiscal year instead of the $450 million net income it predicted in the spring.

The turnaround was caused primarily by a dry summer and low levels of power-generating water, the report said.

"The decrease in net income is primarily driven by low water conditions, which have significantly reduced net export revenues," the report states.

Other factors include a ruling in August by the Public Utilities Board, the provincial energy regulator, that granted Hydro a lower-than-requested rate increase.

While campaigning for the Oct. 3 election, the NDP, then in Opposition, promised to freeze hydroelectric rates for one year, starting in 2025. That promise is now being re-examined.

"We're not saying we're not doing it. We are going to proceed with that commitment, but it's just a question of how and when," Finance Minister Adrien Sala said.

Sala blamed the former Progressive Conservative government. He said it must have known in the summer that Hydro's financial picture was worsening, and should have told the public that the province's fiscal situation, which benefits from Hydro profits, would be affected.

"We would expect that Hydro would have informed government about the state of water levels, and that they would have had insight into the overall direction of those numbers," Sala said.

He did not provide evidence that the government was advised of the changes at Hydro.

A first-quarter fiscal update from the province, released in July, did not outline updated numbers from Hydro, but warned that its projection of $450 million in net income might not be met because of low water levels and low export prices. The update mentioned a $200-million revenue contingency was available in the provincial budget if needed.

Manitoba Hydro released its own first-quarter fiscal update in September that said its projected net income might be cut in half, without providing a specific number.

Now in Opposition, the Tories said weather is always a major variable for the utility's finances and the NDP needs to take uncertainty into account.

"How are the NDP going to pay for (the promised rate freeze) without seriously putting in jeopardy the debt load of Manitoba Hydro?" Tory Hydro critic Grant Jackson said.

The government has said it will release its mid-year fiscal update within a few weeks. Premier Wab Kinew has said the projected deficit will be higher than the $363 million originally forecast in the spring budget.

   This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2023

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