Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not much to cheer about

Manitoba gets only crumbs in Flaherty's low-key spending plan

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Manitoba Jobs and Economy Minister Theresa Oswald gives her critique of Tuesday's federal budget. She's underwhelmed, citing several areas of disappointment.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba Jobs and Economy Minister Theresa Oswald gives her critique of Tuesday's federal budget. She's underwhelmed, citing several areas of disappointment. Photo Store

It wasn't supposed to be a game-changing federal budget. Expectations were kept deliberately low and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was widely expected to save the goodies for his pre-election spending blueprint next year.

There was very little in the 419-page budget that got Manitoba's politicians and policy wonks excited Tuesday. Winnipeg figured not at all in the document, Manitoba garnered only a passing mention, and few of the province's top-of-mind issues got a shout-out.

There was no mention of transit infrastructure for Winnipeg, the east-side road project, affordable housing initiatives or funding to kick-start the slow cleanup of Lake Winnipeg. The budget was padded with small-time spending on things such as snowmobile trails and $150,000 to increase mentorship among women entrepreneurs.

The only Manitoba initiative that earned a mention was a $10-million overhaul of the Emerson border-crossing station, announced a year ago.

Local politicians, aboriginal leaders and policy experts were left shrugging their shoulders Tuesday.

 

MANITOBA

Manitoba Jobs and Economy Minister Theresa Oswald said there is little in the budget for Manitoba -- just the opposite.

"It's not what I would define as a blockbuster read," she said Tuesday.

Oswald said the budget confirms Ottawa is not prepared at this time to address the loss of an anticipated $100 million in transfer payments this year due to what the province describes as a population miscount by Statistics Canada. The Selinger government argues the federal agency underestimated the province's population by 18,000 people, robbing the province of an increase in per-capita health and social transfer payments reflecting population growth.

"When you have transfer numbers that are flat and there are more people in your house, that actually is a de facto cut, and we don't think that's good for anybody in Manitoba," Oswald said. She said the province has asked for a "sober second look" into the discrepancy and will live by whatever that independent review determines.

She said she was disappointed with Ottawa's plan to withdraw much of the funding it now provides to train vulnerable unemployed and underemployed people and spend it instead on the new Canada Jobs Grant, announced last year and set to begin April 1. It's aimed at improving the skills of people who are already working.

A number of Canada's premiers have already said the federal program will leave them holding the bag for basic skills training for young people, those with disabilities, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and social-assistance recipients.

"If this is a take-it-or-leave-it offer, it stands to reason that a number of disadvantaged and vulnerable workers in Canada will be thrown to the curb," Oswald said.

She said the province is pleased Ottawa is creating a national disaster-mitigation program.

However, the $200 million over five years for the program is woefully insufficient, she said.

 

WINNIPEG

The federal budget seemed to contain little benefit for municipalities outside southern Ontario.

Ottawa promised to provide $500 million over the next two years to help the auto industry and $470 million for the construction of a new international bridge between Windsor and Detroit.

But there were no grand schemes such as the Building Canada Fund of previous federal budgets and nothing for transit or infrastructure spending in general. In contrast, the Harper government's 2013 federal budget included more than $53 billion over 10 years, beginning later this year, for local and economic infrastructure projects.

The budget was so underwhelming it provoked little reaction at city hall. Mayor Sam Katz declined to offer any comments and several councilors could not be reached for reaction.

"It's unfortunate that investment in Canada's aging infrastructure is not a federal priority," said Coun. John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry), one of two declared candidates for mayor in the October civic election.

-- INFRASTRUCTURE

Manitoba's municipal leaders have been waiting months for details of the new Building Canada Fund, the next round of federal infrastructure cash earmarked for items from big projects such as rapid transit to repairing potholes and water pipes.

Tuesday's budget was expected to offer some details on the 10-year, $53-billion fund, which includes gas-tax revenue. But no details on priorities or allocations were on offer, said Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Doug Dobrowolski.

"On the infrastructure side, it's very vague and very disappointing," Dobrowolski said.

Despite the infrastructure anti-climax, Dobrowolski said a plan to spend $305 million to extend broadband Internet access throughout rural and northern communities is good news. But he said he was disappointed the Harper government offered little new on affordable housing, especially related to a series of expiring agreements with affordable-housing agencies that amount to $1.5 billion in lost operating funding over the next five years.

 

FIRST NATIONS

There were a few bright spots in the budget for Manitoba First Nations, but also some big omissions and uncertainties.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper said he was heartened to hear Ottawa promise more money to improve Internet access on reserves. He hailed news that a $60-million annual northern nutrition program would get more money, though the amount of the increase wasn't specified in the budget.

But he was hoping for more details on the rollout of the new First Nations education agreement announced last week. It promises $500 million over seven years to repair old schools and build new ones and core funding of $1.25 billion a year to run those schools.

Harper noted there was no mention of improvements to northern health care, new cash to ease the on-reserve housing crisis or plans to fund proper water and sewer services to the hundreds of homes that still need it.

 

-- Mary Agnes Welch, Aldo Santin and Bruce Owen

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2014 A9

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