A couple of Fridays ago, a group of youngish NDP members gathered at a downtown pub to hold a send-off party for a former city hall employee named Mathieu Allard.
Since 2006, Allard had been working as the executive assistant for St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal, an active NDP member who’s good friends with another St. Boniface politician — Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger.
Allard left his job in Vandal’s office to do a similar job in the premier’s constituency office. On its own, there was nothing remarkable about the nearly lateral move.
But Vandal and Selinger share more than just an executive assistant. The close relationship between the two St. Boniface politicians is a big deal at city hall, where Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz is starting to think about his re-election prospects in 2010.
As most Winnipeggers remember, Katz easily beat Vandal in the wide-open mayoral race in 2004, when Glen Murray vacated the mayor’s office to take an ill-fated crack at federal politics.
Vandal is almost certain he won’t run for mayor again, but Katz still has a big headache on the horizon in the form of the 2010 operating budget, which would see him attempt to achieve another property tax freeze only seven months before voters go to the polls.
Over the past three years, Winnipeg’s penchant for freezing property taxes irritated the hell out of the provincial government, which wants to see the city increase its pool of revenue by means that don’t involve bigger paycheques from Broadway.
Every time Katz or any council member justifiably called for a slice of growth revenues such as sales taxes, former premier Gary Doer or Selinger — in his role as finance minister — would quietly or not-so-quietly suggest the city could do more on its own, either by raising taxes for the first time since 1997 or by borrowing more money for major projects.
The tiff over taxes did not entirely sour the relationship between Doer and Katz, who weren’t crazy about each other but managed to grit their teeth and work together.
Selinger, however, is a lot less cuddly than Doer. As a former city councillor and provincial finance minister, the premier probably figures he has the city’s number when it comes to budget issues.
He certainly did in March, when St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel marched down to the legislature to loudly protest the finance minister’s refusal to backfill $11.5 million worth of question marks in an iffy 2009 operating budget that relied on the promise of more provincial money as well as unspecified internal efficiencies to achieve a balance.
With Ottawa set to transfer less money to have-not provinces, Manitoba will be hard-pressed to offer Winnipeg extra money in 2010, let alone maintain the pile of cash that’s already on the table.
Katz knows this and so does Selinger, who will watch with interest to see what Winnipeg will do. If the city doesn’t raise property taxes, the province will feel justified in being just as tight with its own cash. But if the city raises property taxes, the mayor will feel the heat from the right during an election year.
At this point, Katz is almost alone at city hall when it comes to maintaining another tax freeze, now that Winnipeg has the lowest municipal tax burden in Canada.
The mayor’s goal in 2010 will be to achieve another freeze in March, get re-elected in October and then deal with any financial hangovers in 2011. Selinger could play a huge role in aiding or thwarting the mayor in this trifecta.
While the mayor has described his initial meetings with Selinger as positive, the premier declined requests to be interviewed about their relationship.
The mayor clearly faces a tougher time with Selinger than he did with Doer. If only he lived in St. Boniface.
When Katz stares across the floor of city council at St. Boniface Coun. Vandal, he no longer just sees his old combatant, but someone who genuinely has the premier’s ear.