Finance Minister Jennifer Howard’s first budget contains only minor fee increases and a commitment to raise the minimum wage again — two of the few standouts in a budget that focuses most on holding the line and putting more people to work.
Included in the budget, one of the shorter ones in recent years, is also a commitment to be out of deficit by 2016 when Manitoba’s books will be $39 million on the positive side.
Also highlighted is a four-year plan to help Manitoba’s poor through a new shelter or rent assist benefit program to support low-income Manitobans living in private rental housing. The NDP says the goal is a rate target of 75 per cent of median market rent, an issue that poverty advocates have pushed government for several years.
"Reducing poverty and helping people move from welfare to work is not just the right thing to do, it is what our economy needs to grow," Howard said in her budget speech, read in the legislative assembly this afternoon.
As promised by Howard earlier this week, today’s budget has no tax shocks or cuts.
There will also be no new cigarette tax increases this year or any other tax increases, the NDP having raised the provincial sales tax last year by one point to eight per cent and the year before extending what services were covered by the PST, such as haircuts more that $50 and some insurance products.
And what fee increases there will be are minor and confined to small groups. Hunters will pay a new $5 fee to go towards preserving wildlife and the sale of government maps will increase up to $72, depending on the type of map being bought. Included in the budget are already-announced fee increases to cottage owners in provincial parks and an increase in fees for veterinary diagnostic tests.
Howard said she and her government make no apologies for a budget that centres on job training.
"That may not be the most exciting, sexiest thing ever in a budget, but it is critically important to the future growth of this province," Howard told reporters.
The budget’s other main focus, as already reported, is on infrastructure. The government said it will spend $5.5 billion over the next five years, not only to improve roads and highways like Highway 75, but to further jumpstart the province’s economy.
"There are many good things about Manitoba, but one thing you can never take away from us is our geographic location," she said. "To build on that means investing in those trade corridors."
The budget will also put a limit of two per cent on government spending growth to ensure it doesn’t grow faster than the economy. There will be a freeze or reduction to the budgets of nine government departments.
Towards that end, the government has recruited Standard Aero’s Rob Despins to chair a new lean council to advise government on how a smaller government can continue offer efficient services.
"That isn’t about providing people with less services," Howard said. "We aren’t asking Manitobans to do with less. We want them to have excellent services, but we need to get more efficient at providing those services."
Howard also said the government has adjusted the size of the projected 2015-16 deficit in part to deal with less money in per capita federal transfer payments due to Statistic Canada reducing the estimate of Manitoba’s population by 18,000 people. The province says that discrepancy will take $100 million out of that year’s budget.
The projected deficit for that year was $164 million, but has been adjusted upwards to $218 million. The following year the government says it will be back in surplus.
"I think the path forward is achievable," Howard said.