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NDP, PCs sucking and blowing

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Conservative leader Brian Pallister chooses to ride anti-PST wave.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Conservative leader Brian Pallister chooses to ride anti-PST wave. Photo Store

BRANDON -- Experts insist that it is impossible to suck and blow at the same time, but that isn't stopping Manitoba's two major political parties from trying to prove the experts wrong.

The Selinger government has raised taxes for infrastructure, and wants to raise them even higher, but is on a trajectory to actually reduce its spending on critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, sewers and water.

The Progressive Conservatives, on the other hand, are working hard to convince Manitobans you can reduce taxes and still balance the books, pay down the provincial debt, solve the infrastructure deficit, reduce surgical wait times, improve the quality of education, fight crime and solve the province's social issues.

Manitoba's infrastructure deficit is growing at a terrifying rate, thanks to inflation and decades of governmental indifference. Despite the fact our quality of life is directly linked to the quality of our infrastructure, we are approaching the point where the challenge will be so massive it will be beyond our financial means to fix it.

Chris Lorenc, the chair of the Infrastructure Funding Council and president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, understands the problem.

"Absent the political will to acknowledge the problem, we will witness more intergovernmental debate eluding resolution for years to come and with that exponentially growing costs exceeding taxpayer capacity to reach," he said. "Concurrently our infrastructure will crumble, our economy will lose competitiveness, economic growth and job opportunities will go elsewhere, and revenues will be lost to government with which to fund our quality of life programs which shape our standard of living."

If there was ever a time for a straight-talking, truth-telling political party with the courage to have an adult conversation with Manitobans about the challenges facing the province, and what it is going to cost to address them, now is that time.

We need to start carrying our own weight and stop expecting our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to pay our bills. That starts with a credible plan to address the infrastructure problem.

The ironic part is that the plan largely exists. Both the Business Council of Manitoba and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities have called for a one percentage point increase in the PST, with the proceeds being used solely for municipal infrastructure. The AMM conducted a poll that showed that almost two-thirds of Manitobans supported the idea.

Two years ago, the infrastructure funding council issued a comprehensive, 20-year blueprint to address the infrastructure deficit. It is gathering dust, thanks to a lack of political will in the premier's office. That's a shame, because the IFC plan represents the province's best opportunity to solve the problem before it becomes unsolvable.

Manitobans are well aware of the importance of addressing the infrastructure deficit -- that's why they support the idea of a PST increase dedicated to infrastructure. That support is conditional, however, on the money raised being used to increase total infrastructure spending, and not being used for non-infrastructure spending, or to reduce the current level of infrastructure spending.

With that in mind, it's time to get serious about the infrastructure challenge. That would start with the premier putting his planned PST increase on hold in order to give the province, the City of Winnipeg and the AMM time to negotiate an arrangement for the funding of core municipal infrastructure, accompanied by a clear, transparent, measurable, accountable long term plan.

Once that plan is in place, it should be the responsibility of the Business Council, the AMM, the City of Winnipeg and every other organization supporting a PST increase for infrastructure to convince Manitobans to endorse the increase through a referendum.

That is what should happen, but it's not going to.

Selinger has backed himself into a corner on the PST increase issue and it would require a humiliating change of course for his government to back down now. Brian Pallister's Tories are riding the wave of an anti-tax movement that has put them at their highest level of support in quite some time. They aren't going to kill that momentum by calling for a PST hike, no matter how necessary.

Both parties are locked in a political game from which there is no easy escape -- and Manitobans are paying the price.

Deveryn Ross is a political

commentator living in Brandon.

deverynrossletters@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A15

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