Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

PST increase a bait-and-switch scheme

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BRANDON -- If the Selinger government was sincere in its stated desire to address Manitoba's infrastructure deficit, it would have a plan that actually tackles the problem. Instead, Manitobans have been presented with a bait-and-switch scheme that claims to address infrastructure, but will do little to solve the problem.

A tax hike dedicated toward municipal infrastructure -- roads, sewers and bridges -- makes sense on several levels. Fixing problems now avoids higher costs down the road and benefits all citizens. Superior infrastructure can be an competitive advantage and it is good for the economy. It creates jobs and facilitates trade and commerce, all of which increases economic activity and tax revenue.

Infrastructure spending is one of the most defensible forms of public spending and that is why a poll of Manitobans conducted in 2011 showed almost two-thirds of respondents supported the idea of a one-percentage-point PST increase dedicated entirely to infrastructure.

The idea of a PST hike to support municipal infrastructure improvements is also supported by the Business Council of Manitoba, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, the Infrastructure Funding Council and a number of other organizations that play key roles in the provincial economy.

With all of that support behind the idea of a PST increase for infrastructure, why are so many Manitobans angry at Selinger?

They are angry because Selinger's plan isn't transparent, it isn't accountable and it isn't credible. It does little to assist Manitoba's municipalities -- where the really serious infrastructure problems are found -- and it is becoming increasingly obvious the proposed increase is being used as cover for spending that was announced and supposedly budgeted for in prior years.

The Sage Creek school, approved last year but re-announced this week, is one example. The water-treatment plant announced Thursday for Neepawa is another. Victoria Avenue in Brandon was going to be repaved even if there was no PST increase. The list will grow longer over the coming weeks.

Beyond that, the Selinger government's definition of infrastructure now goes far beyond roads, bridges, sewers and water to include stadiums, rinks, schools and almost any other tangible public asset. In many cases, those are the types of items that normally are funded through the normal budgetary process -- and there's the rub.

By making this one-percentage-point increase the province's source of infrastructure funds, Selinger is freeing up money within the provincial budget for other spending. It's a fiscal shell game that will do little to solve the infrastructure deficit while providing millions of additional dollars to fuel our NDP government's spending habits.

Finally, Selinger claims he needs the new infrastructure money because of the increased risk of flooding this spring. It's a claim that draws laughter in Brandon, given the province's broken promise to have 1-in-300-year flood protection in place by last fall. The protection won't be there until the fall of 2014 at the earliest, meaning any damages suffered and many costs incurred fighting a flood this spring would have been avoidable. The same can be said for communities all along the Assiniboine River that were promised enhanced protection after the 2011 flooding but are almost as vulnerable this spring as they were two years ago.

In order to fully grasp the cynical nature of the proposed PST increase, consider the path Selinger could have followed.

Capitalizing on the widespread support for a one-percentage-point PST increase, he could have called a referendum months ago and challenged the AMM, the Manitoba Business Council, the Infrastructure Funding Council, the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and every other organization calling for the increase to convince Manitobans it was necessary. They would have likely welcomed the challenge, but they would have insisted on a commitment from Selinger that all the monies raised from the tax would be used for real infrastructure spending at the municipal level.

It is a simple plan that would have forced others to do the heavy lifting, would have funded important projects and would have insulated Selinger from any political fallout. That Selinger did not adopt that plan tells us everything we need to know about his motives.

This isn't an infrastructure plan. It's a money grab, dressed up as infrastructure.

 

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

deverynrossletters@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A11

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