The fall sitting of the Manitoba legislature ended late Thursday evening with the governing NDP using its majority to formally pass into law a five-month-old PST hike that’s already cost taxpayers $119 million.
The one percentage point tax hike, which came into effect July 1, was announced in the April 16 budget. But a feisty Conservative Opposition, using a variety of stalling tactics, prevented the NDP from passing Bill 20 during an extraordinary long spring session that stretched into mid-September.
MLAs began a new legislative session on Nov. 12, with dozens of bills still carried over from the previous session, including Bill 20.
Under an all-party deal that ended the previous session, the bill — and close to three dozen others held up for months due to political bickering — were to go to a final vote of the legislature by Dec. 5.
Bill 20 was among a batch of bills that had yet to receive third and final reading as of Thursday. But the Tories were not ready to see it passed by the NDP majority without making their displeasure known one last time.
By demanding a series of recorded votes they allowed the division bells in the Legislative Building to ring for hours, delaying final approval of Bill 20 until 7:15 p.m.
They also delayed passage of a large budget implementation and tax statutes amendment act because they objected to a provision that would provide administrative and operating subsidies to political parties. The Tories say they will refuse to accept the subsidy.
The same bill would reduce public support for horse racing in Manitoba.
MLAs remained at work until past 9:30 p.m., when Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee entered the chamber to give royal assent to the 35 bills that were passed during the sitting.
Earlier Thursday, Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said his party would proceed with a planned legal challenge to the provincial sales tax hike because the government had instituted it without first holding a public referendum, as dictated by an old law enacted by the Filmon Tories. (Bill 20 removed the requirement for a provincial plebiscite.)
The NDP argued all along that it was within its rights to raise the tax before the bill passed — as is tradition with tax hikes announced in the budget.
"If we let this go, then the government can raise the PST next year, too," Pallister said after question period.
The third session of the 40th Manitoba legislature will resume on March 6, 2014, with a new budget.
In its throne speech Nov. 12, the Selinger government refocused its reasoning for increasing the PST, saying the additional revenues would be invested in highways, bridges, flood protection and such municipal infrastructure as sewer and water services. The government announced plans to spend $5.5 billion on infrastructure over the next five years. It later clarified that the total spending included contributions from municipal and federal governments.
Acting premier Jennifer Howard said Thursday she expected the public would continue to debate the value of increasing the provincial sales tax, which now stands at eight per cent.
But she said the government is intent on demonstrating that investments in infrastructure — while maintaining critical health and education services — will help grow the economy.
"These are investments that we believe are going to help make sure that Manitoba has a strong economy so that people can stay here and can work here and can raise their families," Howard said.