The public and political furore over a proposed hike in the PST showed no signs of abating Friday as the legality of the NDP government's enabling bill was called into question.
Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said his party is seeking legal advice on whether Bill 20, which would allow the province to increase the sales tax without a voter referendum, is against the law.
"We have people looking at it now, yeah. We're very concerned," Pallister told reporters outside the legislature.
Balanced-budget legislation enacted by the Filmon Conservatives in the 1990s forbids the introduction of a bill that would boost income-tax or sales-tax rates in Manitoba without a referendum to give the voters a say.
Pallister seemed reluctant Friday to discuss legal problems the legislation might have, preferring to focus on the bill's "moral" issues. He said the government promised not to raise taxes, then did so even though the balanced-budget law forbids it without a referendum.
"I do not want to get into the legality of it, because I'm not a lawyer. I don't want to guess (at the legality of the proposed legislation)," Pallister said before revealing his party is seeking legal advice on the issue.
Bill 20 was introduced Wednesday, the day after the NDP government announced in its budget it intended to raise the PST one percentage point to eight per cent, effective July 1. The measure is expected to raise $278 million annually.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation started an online petition at www.GregLied.ca opposing the tax increase. It had 1,000 online signatures by Friday morning. The petition's website address refers to repeated past statements by Premier Greg Selinger that he would not jack up the PST. The premier now says a delayed economic recovery and huge looming infrastructure bills have left the government no choice but to increase revenue.
Late Friday, Pallister's Conservatives announced they launched their own website, StandUpManitoba.com, offering Manitobans a vehicle to voice their displeasure with Bill 20.
Dozens of Manitobans are already lining up to speak directly to politicians about the PST increase once the bill reaches the committee stage. By Friday afternoon, 77 Manitobans had registered to speak on it. The Conservatives repeatedly pressured the government this week to hold a public referendum on the PST increase before proceeding with the legislation. Such a vote would costs millions of dollars. On Thursday, Pallister outlined $286.6 million in cuts and savings the government could undertake to avoid a tax hike.
Selinger did not appear concerned about a potential legal challenge to Bill 20 when reached by phone in Toronto on Friday afternoon. "We take advice from the people that draft the legislation about what is the appropriate way to go," he said. Bryan Schwartz, an expert in constitutional law and legislative process at the University of Manitoba, said there's an argument to be made that the government should have first introduced a bill striking the need for a referendum. Instead, it has suspended the referendum requirement and enabled the tax hike all in one bill.
But Schwartz said the government appears to have some "reasonably strong counter-arguments."
Recently, opponents of the federal Harper government's removal of the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly powers challenged the move in the courts. They pointed to a Canadian Wheat Board Act requirement for a Prairie farm plebiscite on the measure.
The courts "seemed to be skeptical... that one legislature can actually require a subsequent legislature to hold a referendum... " Schwartz said. Ottawa's wheat-board legislation survived the challenge.
How much would a referendum cost?
HOW much would it cost to hold a referendum on the Selinger government raising the provincial sales tax one percentage point to eight per cent?
The government has introduced a bill to do away with a 1995 requirement to hold such a vote, so we'll never know.
Elections Manitoba said the best gauge is past elections.
The 2011 provincial election cost $12 million. The campaign ran 28 days, from Sept. 6 to Oct. 4, 2011.
The 2007 campaign cost $8 million. That campaign ran 32 days, from April 20 to May 22, 2007.
It's estimated a referendum campaign would be shorter than an election campaign.
An added cost could be campaign financing. Campaign-finance legislation allows for reimbursement of expenses for candidates. In a referendum, allowance could be made to reimburse expenses of advocates on either side of the question.
Referendums in Manitoba
REFERENDUMS have been few and far between in the province. Here's a list:
1937 -- A city referendum was held to answer the question: "Are you in favour of the use of Daylight Saving Time in Winnipeg from the last Sunday in April until the last Saturday in September?" It passed.
A second ballot question was: "Are you in favour of the term of office for the Mayor of the City of Winnipeg being extended from one year to two years?" It passed.
1927 -- A provincial referendum was held to decide if beer and wine by the glass could be sold in licensed premises. It passed.
1923 -- A provincial referendum was held to decide if liquor could be sold under government control. It passed.