The recently introduced Manitoba budget has resulted in much debate, principally around the decision to increase the provincial sales tax from seven to eight per cent. Notwithstanding that Manitoba’s PST will remain the third lowest in Canada, and many groups, including the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, cite the challenge regarding infrastructure renewal, debate continues around Manitoba’s balanced budget legislation and demands for a referendum vote.
The Selinger government is well within its rights to alter legislation and to increase provincial revenues. Given the sluggish national economy and the pressing need for infrastructure renewal and the requirement for federal programs to include at least one-third provincial funding, alignment with the federal government’s 10-year Building Canada Fund is the kind of long term planning Manitoba needs.
The Manitoba Business Council, the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and the Manitoba Federation of Labour have all called over the past year for a one per cent increase in PST to be given to Manitoba municipalities. The Canada West Foundation issued a similar call nationally in 2012. One suspects each of these organizations meant what they said but it remains to be seen where they stand on the particulars of the Selinger plan, and they may yet weigh in on the matter of an expensive referendum, which is anticipated to cost the taxpayer more than $10-million.
Depending on one’s perspective, this is a courageous budget, one that preserves front-line services, modestly adjusts social service rates and the minimum wage upwards, and tweaks tax relief on property for Manitoba seniors. Alternatively, some argue Premier Greg broke his promise not to raise taxes and the balanced budget law should remain as is and not be amended. The fact is, governments at all levels are facing difficult decisions, and many are taking a practical and realistic approach. Mayor Sam Katz soon realized that Winnipeg needed to raise revenue in order to provide the services Winnipeggers need. Despite promising to not raise taxes, Mayor Katz increased both property taxes and frontage levies.
I opt for the practical approach. As Globe and Mail columnist Jeffery Simpson has recently argued, Canadians need an "adult conversation" on who will pay for services and infrastructure. PC Leader, Brian Pallister’s arguments are impractical and void of any real solutions to the challenges government is facing today. Someone has to pay for the costs arising out of the $1 billion flood of 2011, just like we will have to pay this year, should any Manitoban fall victim to flood conditions beyond our control.
If I have any critique of the Selinger government on this front it is that they have not been loud enough in stating Manitoba’s case to Ottawa, where these days it is the practice to dole out flood relief announcements, with accompanying fanfare, a few million dollars at a time. Manitobans deserve better from the Harper government.
Selinger should say so loudly, and I suspect he will have the support of the vast majority of citizens.
Along with many others, I spoke against the Filmon government’s balanced budget legislation in 1995. We cited how compulsory referendums were designed to eliminate revenue generating tax increases. This is the history in places like California, which can barely keep its schools and universities open. Many who spoke to this bill cited premier Gary Filmon’s comments regarding people being elected to govern and to make judgments in the best interests of the public on a range of issues under new and changing circumstances. Filmon made those comments in rejecting calls for a public referendum on any provincial money being used to bail out the Winnipeg Jets Hockey club, in the emotional debate that waged in this community prior to our Jets leaving Winnipeg.
Filmon was right to adopt that stance, and those calling for a Jets bailout referendum were, with respect, wrong. I thought so then and remain of this view. Selinger has every right to adopt the same stance as Filmon did, and I believe he has made the right call.
The bottom line is that Manitobans will have the final say in 2015. For now, I support budget 2013. It strikes a balance in terms of support for the low-income Manitobans, support for front line public services, and support for our long term economic interests through a ten year infrastructure renewal commitment, through a modest tax hike that I believe is both needed and appropriate.
Paul Moist is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada’s largest union with 625,000 members.