Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger still has an option

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Opinion polls show voters want to punish the NDP over a decision to hike the PST. A big part of the problem with the tax hike was the way it was done -- people are angry the Selinger government twisted the rationale for the hike and ignored the balanced-budget law that demands any tax increase go to public vote. As a proxy referendum, the polls show people resoundingly reject this opportunistic increase.

If an election were held today, the NDP could be defeated, the Probe Research/Free Press telephone poll of 1,002 Manitobans indicates. Brian Pallister's Tories gathered 43 per cent of support, compared with the NDP's 29 per cent. The wild card is Winnipeg, the key to power, where the parties are now tied. The NDP support is dispersed in three sectors; Tory support resides heavily in the northeast and southwest.

But a poll is a snapshot in time. The best illustration of that rule of thumb is the rise in the Liberal support, to 20 per cent, as many 2011 NDP supporters park their support.

The same poll found many voters have moved away from the NDP precisely because of the PST hike. Two-thirds of respondents said it simply wasn't necessary. The ardent sentiment reflects an online poll in May conducted for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Of 500 Manitobans, 72 per cent rejected the PST hike and 81 per cent said they had no confidence it would be spent on infrastructure or flood prevention, the reasons the NDP cited to justify it.

People rightly distrust the Selinger government because of the history behind the PST issue. Over the past decade, groups such as the AMM, the Business Council of Manitoba and this newspaper had built a legitimate case to increase the PST by one percentage point to fund a growing municipal infrastructure deficit. In early 2012, the AMM found two-thirds of Manitobans polled agreed to a tax hike for the purpose of fixing roads, sewer and water works and recreation centres. Despite the numerous calls for a tax hike, the Selinger government rebuffed all demands and dismissed as "total nonsense" a PST hike in the last election. This year, weeks before releasing a budget that would show it yet again could not meet its own spending and deficit plans, the government adopted the PST hike for the wrong reason, using the new revenue to make room to continue its spending spree on other programs. (The hike raises about $200 million additional revenue this year, but the government increased infrastructure spending by just $80 million.) The NDP used the same manoeuver with a 2.5-cent hike per litre on gas in its 2012 budget.

So while spending on health facilities and garden paths and community outreach programs now qualify as "infrastructure," the annual municipal infrastructure deficit of crumbling roads, bridges, sewer and water projects and recreation centres continues to mount.

The poll shows the NDP is taking blowback from an electorate that knows the Selinger government abused solid support for a critical public works for its own convenient purpose, to help fund a spending problem financial reports confirm continues to this day.

Premier Greg Selinger should acknowledge that fact. He should call together municipal representatives, settle on a meaningful, municipal definition of "infrastructure" and increase 2012 spending levels by the amount raised in new PST revenue.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2013 A6

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