Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Buying votes the only game in town

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One week left in the Groupon campaign. And if you don't like the latest deal, wait a day, something will pop up.

The ideological struggle is so yesterday. In the last 12 years, Manitoba elections have undergone a complete conversion to a marketplace where the ideas hold no currency against the cut-rate bait. Pave those back lanes; expand the neighbourhood rec centre; build an ambulance bay; guarantee cheap utility bills. All of it, deficit-financed, by the way.

But it's not "by the way." It's the new way. The game of vote-fishing using taxpayer's money as bait, perfected by Gary Doer's NDP in its three elections and three terms of government, has infected the Tories, now, too.

And it's why Manitoba has a spending problem, why we're piling up deficits despite the fact Ottawa transfers an additional $2 billion every year to this province -- from $1.6 billion in 2000 to an expected $3.6 billion this year.

But before you get enamoured of what's in it for you, remember that in the great bartering of public services that happens every four years, more or less, there's no clearance sale or loss leader. It's the cynical hawking of tax-supported cross-subsidization. And it works.

There is no other good explanation for the Progressive Conservative Party to disown fiscal prudence and instead base $1-billion of promises, program expansion and tax cuts, on an extension of the provincial deficit into 2018. They say they are being fiscally prudent but how does that fit with paving back lanes in Winnipeg -- a non-issue if there ever was one? Nowhere near a provincial priority.

The NDP opens health clinics, subsidizes home renovations, beautifies a riverfront park. And it clings to its successful strategy of circulating public money to fuel the economy: Manitoba firms are being paid to gear up so they can bid for contract work to come with the new hydroelectric projects. That, and a predictable edict that union rates will apply to all contracts, pads the cost of public works projects. In a province so invested in public-sector job creation, this is what passes for economic growth.

There are better ways to serve taxpayers, but they require some hard thinking and a little vision -- two things that almost all politicians regard as high-level stuff you don't even try to pitch to a distracted, cynical and somnolent public.

What if, for example, someone proposed to do this:

Renegotiate funding relationships with municipalities groaning under the weight of a decaying infrastructure (How's the road in front of your house? Can your kid's hockey team get ice time in the local community centre?) such that they reclaim control of their spending priorities. Transfer tax points -- which opens the possibility of a municipal sales tax, if the province reduces its own -- to fund those priorities while easing pressure on the province's program spending.

Sound like something worth thinking about?

How's this, then: what if the province were to effectively cut your property taxes in half? Catch your attention? Hugh McFadyen believes that a new municipal funding arrangement, in which towns and cities took on more responsibility for funding their programs supported by new taxing authority, could cut provincial expenditures enough that a Conservative government could look at replacing the $680 million raised by school board levies with increased provincial funding.

Crazy? Right now, provincial support for infrastructure and other local programs to municipalities is $300 million. The province already pays $170 million of the school tax on property through a credit to homeowners and renters. Almost like cut-rate school tax, except that the school board levy has risen so fast as to make it near impossible for Winnipeg, with its revenue problem, to squeeze a bit more from property owners. Mayor Sam Katz, sensing a property tax hike was political death, promised a freeze but then raised water rates, instead.

Hugh McFadyen told the Free Press editorial board that a Conservative government would invite municipalities to consider this. He's said nothing about it on the campaign trail. Similarly, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard has yet to tell Manitobans a Liberal government would expand the legislature by four representatives to be elected by aboriginal people alone.

Both are controversial, intriguing ideas that speak to provincial issues. They are certainly bigger ideas than the funding a second sheet of ice at a community centre. And yet in the hyper-local mentality of elections now, is there a politician big enough to put them up against the daily grab of coupons serving the parochial?

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 A18

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