Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister has set out a plan he'd like the NDP government to follow to avoid saddling Manitobans with a provincial sales tax hike worth $278 million a year.
Instead of raising the PST a point to eight per cent, Pallister said the government should trim what he called a bloated civil-service executive, ferret out $120 million in savings across the board and institute a "hiring chill."
He would also slash government advertising spending and communications staff and reform tendering practices.
"The PC party believes taxes are already too high and we believe that government should look within to make better use of the billions of dollars that we already provide to it," Pallister said Thursday in his first detailed response to this week's budget, which has sparked controversy with its proposed July 1 PST hike.
Opposition politicians, small business owners and retailers and consumers have attacked the increase as unnecessary and unfair.
Pallister vowed to roll back the tax hike if his party forms government. And he renewed demands the government hold a referendum before raising the tax, as required under existing law. The government has introduced a bill that would remove that requirement.
Pallister believes the NDP doesn't need to increase the tax. He called his proposed $120-million savings -- equivalent to one per cent of core government spending -- achievable.
"I think the government is spending too much in areas of low priority and not enough in areas of higher priority," Pallister told a news conference.
But the NDP said Pallister's plan could cost many doctors, nurses, teachers and corrections officers their jobs.
"What we've seen is a return to the policies of the 1990s, where they laid off 400 teachers, they fired 1,000 nurses, where they stopped building roads in the province of Manitoba," Premier Greg Selinger said in a clear swipe at the Filmon Tories -- in which Pallister was a cabinet minister.
Pressed on whether the belt-tightening advocated by Pallister would really mean cuts of such essential personnel, Selinger said the PC leader must be more specific.
"If he's going to do that (find $120 million in savings) he has to tell us how many... people he's prepared to put on the unemployment rolls," the premier said.
Pallister's plan renewed calls for a comprehensive review of all government spending to identify areas that can be cut. He said civil servants should be entrusted to find them.
Pending the results of the review, there should be a hiring chill in which civil servants who retire are not replaced -- unless an individual is "in a very special skill-set position," he said. More than 500 civil servants retire each year and 1,000 resign.
If only retiring employees -- with a few exceptions -- were not replaced, it could save government $78 million a year, Pallister said.
He'd also lay off senior managers in a bid to get manager-employee ratios in line with what they were a dozen years ago. That would save more than $9 million a year, the Conservatives said.
Manitoba could achieve further savings by improving its tendering process. For instance, the government requires contractors to resubmit bids on projects in successive years, adding to costs, which are passed on to government, Pallister said.
Manitoba could save $14 million a year if it joined B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan in the New West Partnership to buy supplies and services.