The Business Council of Manitoba has argued in favour of a one point increase in the PST; it firmly opposes the way the Selinger government intends to spend the money.
The use of a general consumption tax to begin chipping away at the mountain of infrastructure deficit is the right way to go. Just compare the impact of a few options; a point of the PST generates $280 million annually, a point of property tax in Winnipeg, $4 million.
The business council continues to believe that Manitobans would accept paying one penny per dollar more on the purchase of most items if they were guaranteed that the money would be new investment directed at the greatest need, the roads, the bridges, the water and sewer systems; basic municipal infrastructure that is crumbling before our eyes and yet essential to sustaining our economy.
The Selinger government's plan does nothing of the sort. It includes schools and hospitals, it has already announced building a school that was in the works anyway and it has signalled to Manitobans the extra cash raised by the PST will be added to the mush of general revenue, one way or another. This is not what the business council, this newspaper and many Manitobans recommended and it is not the best use of the additional money.
A referendum should be held to settle the matter. There is a law on the books requiring it and a spirited debate across the province would assess it. The result, either way, would allow Manitobans to decide whether they wanted to end the discussion and start to seriously address our critical infrastructure or wait until a crisis of pot holes, bridge decay and water and sewage system failures dredges the issue up again and at an even higher price.
Any government has the right to change the law, and the government's decision to amend the balanced budget act to ditch the referendum requirement is no exception. The government will be judged by the big referendum, the next provincial election.
Meanwhile, what is to be done? The public will fill the committee rooms when Bill 20, the statute allowing for the tax hike while canning the referendum requirement, makes its way through the legislative process. The government will feel the heat and it should respond. Here's how:
Amend the bill to allow spending only on roads, bridges, sewers and water and define carefully what that means. Make it clear that the revenue is new money and must be added to current municipal infrastructure spending. Then enable the municipalities to set priorities and access the fund on a per capita basis. Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, the mayors of other major centres and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities are right to complain that their share of the new cash, as proposed, is barely enough to pave a few blocks of road. But sharing the full $280 million would be significant and could be used to leverage hundreds of millions more in long-term financing with repayment that matched the life of these assets.
Here's an additional suggestion: the premier and the mayors complain about each other over huge distances. It would be refreshing if they actually met and talked about the problem and worked together towards a solution.
The federal government should be at the table, too. The problem Manitoba is facing is shared by every jurisdiction in the country. It's been 40 years since the three levels of government sat down to sort out which level is responsible for what infrastructure maintenance and construction and which needs what resources to do the job.
Selinger is the leader best placed to get that ball rolling. All he has to do is invite the mayors and federal Minister of State for Transport Steven Fletcher to a meeting.
Fletcher's role is vital because the federal government will make multi-billion dollar decisions on infrastructure investments made possible by an extension of the Building Canada Fund announced in the last federal budget. Manitoba will want to match those investments, another reason to dedicate the new revenue to hard infrastructure. This is an argument that has been lost in the political dust up.
The Selinger government missed an opportunity to show leadership where we need it badly, for the sake of our citizens' safety and quality of life and with even more severe implications for generations to follow. It's not too late to recover lost ground: amend the bill to focus on municipal infrastructure; be accountable for those decisions; reach out to the municipalities and start the process of engaging other governments to co-ordinate the effort. This is a massive undertaking that should have started 15 years ago. Let's finally get going and let's begin with a little humility on all sides.
Jim Carr is the president and CEO of the
Business Council of Manitoba, a group of
71 CEOs of leading Manitoba companies.
NDP gets it right
Former Winnipegger Paul Moist, head of the 605,000-member Canadian Union of Public Employees, writes that the Selinger government's budget got it right at wfp.to/comment.