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Education property tax blasted

Coalition urges next government to axe levy

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THE next Manitoba government should eliminate education property taxes, even if that means dipping into Manitoba Hydro’s profits or raising income taxes to close the mega-million dollar gap.

A coalition of farmers, realtors and cottageowners launched an offensive Monday against the education tax that funds local school divisions and has become a perennial election issue.

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The groups, which include the Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, want the levy eliminated, including immediate action to increase the province’s share of education funding to 80 per cent. Right now, it stands at about 65 per cent of day-to-day funding, though the province says it’s more like 75 per cent when capital projects and teachers’ pensions are factored in.

Monday, the groups launched what they’ve dubbed the Let’s Pay Fair campaign, which includes a website and lawn signs.

Eliminating education property taxes would leave local school boards with a collective $650-million budget gap, even with the menu of credits and rebates the NDP has introduced in the last several years to ease the sting of rising education taxes, especially for seniors and farmers.

Manitoba Real Estate Association President Lorne Weiss says education ought to be funded from general revenues just like health care.

The tax punishes those on fixed incomes because it doesn’t reflect a person’s ability to pay, he said. Seniors may live in homes that have increased in value while their pensions have stagnated. Cottagers pay education taxes twice, but can’t vote for school trustees in the division where they holiday. "This isn’t fair taxation," said Weiss.

Weiss said he would support a small income tax increase if there was a corresponding decrease in the education tax.

Or, the coalition has suggested skimming some of Manitoba Hydro’s profits — routine practice in nearly every other province with a Crown power company.

But Hydro’s profits can fluctuate dramatically. Last year, Hydro netted $163 million, decent but well short of the $650 million education gap. And, with Manitoba Hydro’s long-term finances under scrutiny thanks to a $20 billion building spree planned for the next decade, some would argue that Hydro needs to keep every penny it earns.

At an education debate last week, all three party leaders stole some of the coalition’s thunder by committing to reducing education property taxes to the 80-20 target.

Instead of across-the-board cuts, it’s likely all parties will choose to bolster the existing credits and rebates that have already shaved hundreds of dollars off property tax bills.

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard will unveil a promise later in the campaign to eliminate the education levy for seniors. And on Monday, leaked details of the Conservative party platform included a $700 property tax credit to cottage owners.

A Tory spokesman categorically ruled out raising income taxes to pay for education.

NDP MLA and party spokeswoman Jennifer Howard said the same, adding that farmland has already reached the 80 per cent target thanks to one of several NDP rebate programs.

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