Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP stuck on same old road

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It would have been so much easier if the Selinger government had simply said it was raising the PST last April because it needed the money to meet its spending ambitions and to contain the growth of the deficit.

The truth, however, was not the message the government wanted to send. You can't win an election by saying: Voters, we have a problem.

Instead, the NDP devised an amateurish propaganda campaign that tried to suggest the entire province and every municipality would benefit from an explosion in new infrastructure spending.

Premier Greg Selinger and his ministers spread out across the province, announcing new wading pools, recreation centres, schools and hospital additions.

The strategy backfired, however, because some of the so-called new projects had been previously announced and because the government's definition of infrastructure was so broad it included everything, including the kitchen sink.

A credibility gap opened with business groups and voters who suspected the infrastructure hype was just a foil to cover the tracks of a government that had mismanaged the province's finances.

In Tuesday's throne speech, the government narrowed its definition of infrastructure. It said the $280 million a year it expected to earn from the PST increase would now be spent only on "core infrastructure," which it defines as highways, bridges, strategic transportation, flood protection and municipal infrastructure, including roads, water and sewer.

This sudden change in definition, coming seven months after the spring budget, only tends to reinforce the idea the tax increase was merely a survival tactic that had nothing to do with infrastructure, which is part of any government's core mandate.

The original plan lacked transparency and accountability, since there was no way to determine if the government would actually spend more money on infrastructure, particularly when the definition was so broad.

The new plan suffers from the same challenge.

Premier Selinger says every nickel raised from the new point of PST "will be fully dedicated to new investments in core infrastructure -- over and above existing spending levels."

The problem is no one really knows how much is spent today on core infrastructure, because the government doesn't keep such records. In fact, it's still not entirely clear what the government means by core infrastructure, which the throne speech also calls strategic infrastructure.

The two aren't necessarily the same, since strategic usually refers to investments that will have a major impact on trade and commerce. IKEA, for example, would never have moved to Winnipeg if the city had not invested in roads, sewers and water.

The best auditors in the world will not be able to determine if the province is spending more money on core infrastructure year after year, but that won't stop the NDP from claiming it is rebuilding the province because of the PST increase.

It would have made more sense to transfer the tax increase to municipalities, because their infrastructure spending is more easily tracked. The province could have confined its role to holding Winnipeg and other communities accountable for their spending.

Instead, the premier said the province intends to spend $5.5 billion on "core" infrastructure over five years, thanks in part to the PST increase.

Some of these projects, such as improvements to the Perimeter Highway and a new highway bypass around Headingley, have been previously announced or discussed, but the premier said the PST increase is allowing the province to spend even more on these projects.

The government tried Tuesday to convince voters it is on the right track, but all it did was show it is stuck on the same, old road.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2013 A8

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