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Mantitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, on Dec. 17, 2019.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government, projecting a deficit of just under $1.6-billion for 2021-22, is dipping into its rainy-day fund to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on businesses.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding says the pandemic’s fallout will result in a deficit of just over $2-billion for the current fiscal year.

“Right now our priority is to protect Manitobans,” Fielding said Tuesday.

Fielding released the projections ahead of next week’s provincial budget.

Most of the deficit can be linked to COVID-19 relief programs and Fielding said more information would be provided in the budget.

“It will ... ensure we can get to the other side [of the pandemic],” he said.

The Progressive Conservatives ran on promises to cut taxes and balance the books over two terms. The government noted a $5-million surplus in the last fiscal year just as the pandemic took hold.

It is withdrawing $215-million from the rainy-day fund, which will leave the account’s balance at $585-million.

The Tories have added hundreds of millions to the fund since 2016.

The government had wavered on whether to use it during the pandemic and said keeping the money where it was would help Manitoba borrow more easily.

Fielding said dipping into the fund now will keep the province from borrowing from the capital market and save taxpayers on interest costs.

The money is to be used to cover the cost of a grant program that provides direct financial support to businesses.

Fielding said the plan is to reduce the deficit over eight years, while replenishing the emergency fund.

But he added that there’s a good chance the government might have to dip into the fund again.

Mark Wasyliw, the Opposition NDP’s finance critic, said the government’s decisions during the pandemic have made life harder for many families.

He criticized the Tories for not spending the emergency fund on things like “safer classrooms or stronger health services.”

“Manitobans want balance when times are good, but in a crisis they just want a government they can rely on to help them.”

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont criticized the government for not dipping deeper into the fund.

“The (Progressive Conservatives) are not actually using the Rainy-Day Fund to help anyone,” Lamont said in a news release. “They are using it to make the books look better.”

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