After months of blistering criticism over its decision to hike the provincial sales tax, the NDP government is attempting to quell the backlash with a pledge to spend every penny of that extra revenue on infrastructure.
In its throne speech Tuesday, the NDP vowed to use the $278 million in extra annual cash on roads, sewers, bridges and flood protection.
"We know it's been a tough period. We have listened to Manitobans and they've said, 'If you are going to do anything with respect to taxes, make sure we get some benefits for it.' We're going to show tangible benefits that will grow the economy," Premier Greg Selinger said.
NDP support has fallen in public opinion polls after months of daily bashings during an intense legislative session that sat well into September because the Conservatives fought the PST increase. It increased to eight per cent from seven per cent on July 1.
The government hopes the public will accept the need for the increase if all of it is spent on core infrastructure.
"We have to focus on the basics and that's what we're doing in this throne speech," Selinger said.
Many of the projects mentioned in the throne speech, which was read by Lt-Gov. Philip Lee, have been discussed previously. The province plans to boost flood protection for Highway 75 to the United States border and is often closed during spring flooding.
There are also plans to upgrade the Trans-Canada Highway to Ontario and to spend money in Winnipeg to expand rapid transit.
Investing in highways fosters economic growth because it allows the private sector to deliver more products to key markets, Selinger said.
The new plan, which will be detailed in next year's budget, will allow the province time to secure matching federal dollars, the government said.
The speech, which was short on detail, touched on several areas. It promised everything from closing loopholes for payday lending companies to a revamped school curriculum to a potential polar bear provincial park on Hudson Bay.
Another pledge involves extending bus rapid transit from Jubilee Avenue to the University of Manitoba -- with help from the federal government.
Not surprisingly, the Tories panned it. "They did not devote a word today to balancing the books," Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said of the NDP, which is facing a budget deficit of $518 million this year. "Can this government be trusted to do the things it says it's going to do?"
Pallister described the throne speech as "a ritual that's lost its meaning and significance" in that it mostly rehashed old announcements.
"What the government is trying to do is essentially old-fashioned, pork-barrel, vote-buying. It's promising to spend millions and billions of dollars on behalf of Manitobans and grow the economy and create jobs, yet Manitobans are being asked to pay higher taxes than ever before," he said.
New Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari was more conciliatory.
She said the NDP had set some "respectable goals" to improve infrastructure, but wondered why the government didn't have its plan in place before boosting the PST.
"Let's hope that they actually put the money where they're saying they're going to put it," Bokhari said.
Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz was more positive. He said the NDP's commitment to rebuild the Jubilee underpass and extend rapid transit to the U of M was welcome news.
"It's nice to hear the provincial government say they are committed to rapid transit," Katz said.
Education and training
The province said it will update its language arts curriculum for kindergarten to Grade 12 students in an effort to improve literacy, communication and critical thinking.
The government also signalled its intention to "take further steps" to prevent bullying at school.
And, it will encourage students to get an early start on future careers by giving them more opportunities to earn post-secondary credits in high school and expanding work-placement credits.
The government also plans to beef up high school shops so kids who are interested in becoming welders, plumbers, carpenters and electricians get a head start down that career path.
And it said it would assist First Nations to improve school attendance and graduation rates, modelled after a successful program at Fisher River Cree Nation. The province will also address job training for young aboriginals, most notably through a $23-million expansion to Frontier Collegiate Institute in Cranberry Portage.
Law and order
Fresh off trotting out the "block by block" anti-crime initiative in the North End last week, the NDP says it wants to introduce new measures to strengthen laws on witness protection and dealing with gang members. The province will also partner with RCMP to create a new cadet program in Thompson.
A grab bag of initiatives includes protecting homeowners from fly-by-night contractors so they must provide clear estimates up front. The government will bring in new measures to further regulate the payday loan industry to address what it calls the high cost of credit products.
The government will soon begin discussions with First Nations, the Town of Churchill and tourism operators about a polar bear provincial park.
Premier Greg Selinger said it could become the largest park in Manitoba.
The goal would be to protect bear dens along the Hudson Bay coast. Much of the area is already designated as a wildlife management area, but the government believes formally calling it a park will lure more tourists.
-- with files from The Canadian Press
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