Province promises tax cuts, health spending in post-pandemic recovery budget

Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government unveiled a “calming” budget Tuesday aiming to please everyone, promising tax cuts and targeted health spending.

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Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government unveiled a “calming” budget Tuesday aiming to please everyone, promising tax cuts and targeted health spending.

Premier Heather Stefanson’s first budget seeks to make good on predecessor Brian Pallister’s promise to leave more money on kitchen tables, while spending more to address the health-care crisis and help low-income earners.

“I do see this, actually, as calming the waters,” said the premier trying to navigate turbulent COVID-19 pandemic times, amid economic and health-care crises, as support for the PC party flounders in the polls.

“What we want to do is make sure that we’re making life more affordable for Manitobans, while at the same time ensuring that we’re making those significant investments to reduce and tackle those backlogs when it comes to surgical and diagnostic procedures,” Stefanson told reporters.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / THE CANADIAN PRESS “I do see this, actually, as calming the waters,” said Premier Heather Stefanson.

The 2022-23 budget — “Recover Together: Strengthen, Invest, Build” — expects a major boost in Manitoba’s fortunes, fuelled by a post-pandemic economic recovery.

“It is the product of engagement with 51,000 Manitobans,” Finance Minister Cameron Friesen told reporters.

A provincial government survey shows health care is the top concern of 98 per cent of Manitobans: “We listened to them. This is our plan to recover together.”

The province says it will spend $7.2 billion on health care, a modest increase over last year, with a $630-million contingency fund for ongoing COVID-19 response and $110 million targeted to reduce the diagnostic and surgical backlog that has grown exponentially during the pandemic.

The budget does not set a target date for clearing wait lists.

Doctors Manitoba president and St. Boniface Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Kristjan Thompson said the Tories’ plans for health care represent a sorely needed, but appropriate, investment that should be encouraging for the advocacy group’s membership.

“But at the end of the day, the things that I’m thinking about are the patient that I saw two nights ago in the ER that waited 11 hours, the approaching 10 per cent of our population that’s waiting for surgical and diagnostic testing — I’m thinking about my patients,” Thompson said.

“We need to work together, we need to rebuild together, and that means having physicians at the table.”

The 2022-23 budget projects a healthier economy, with revenues up 8.5 per cent — a $1.5-billion increase over last year. Federal transfers account for $610 million of that, a 10.8 per cent increase from Budget 2021, thanks to a rise in equalization payments and other federal/provincial agreements.

Economic growth in Manitoba is expected to be 3.6 per cent for 2022 — middle of the pack among Canadian provinces — and 2.8 per cent in 2023. The unemployment rate is expected to hover around five per cent.

Overall provincial spending is expected to increase $466 million — 2.4 per cent more than 2021-22 — less than the rate of inflation.

Inflation was at 5.5 per cent in Manitoba in January, slightly higher than the Canadian average, and is expected to remain above the Bank of Canada target of one to three per cent until the middle of the year.

The deficit, meanwhile, is expected to fall to $548 million from $1.6 billion projected in last year’s budget. The actual deficit for 2021-22 was $1.4 billion, Friesen said Tuesday.

“We’re on schedule to return Manitoba’s books to balance in the next seven years,” the finance minister said.

The ratio of debt to gross domestic product — another measure of the province’s economic health — is expected to drop to 36 per cent from close to 40 per cent.

Stefanson’s first budget as premier launches a $50-million venture capital fund to spur economic growth.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced the contents of the government’s 2022 budget during a media lockup at the Manitoba Legislative building.
It does better than make good on Pallister’s Budget 2020 “$2,020 tax rollback guarantee.” The average Manitoban is expected to pay $2,400 less in taxes than they paid under the previous NDP government (the Tories formed government in 2016), the new budget says.

The PC government is going ahead with Pallister’s plan to phase out education property taxes, but taking longer to do it.

Last year’s budget gave residential and farm property owners a 25 per cent rebate in 2021, and promised a further 25 per cent reduction in 2022. That’s now going to be spread out over two years, with the rebate increasing to 37.5 per cent in 2022 and 50 per cent in 2023.

Rebates for homeowners will increase from an average of $387 in 2021 to $581 this year and to $774 in 2023.

Lower-income renters who felt left behind in last year’s budget are getting some help, as well.

The $525 renters tax credit will now be available to more people. Manitobans in social housing whose rent is geared to income and those enrolled in the Rent Assist program who are not on social assistance will now qualify for the credit.

According to the budget documents, 45,000 households will qualify for up to $24 million in new renters credits starting this year.

“We’re still in very difficult times but we think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.” – Premier Heather Stefanson

On Tuesday, Stefanson defended cutting taxes while Manitoba is still expecting a hefty deficit of $548 million.

“We’re still in very difficult times but we think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” the premier said.

“We can make those significant investments in health care to tackle those surgical and diagnostic backlogs, as well as providing money to put back into the pockets of Manitobans.”

However, Manitobans looking for reasons to be optimistic won’t find them in this budget, said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

“What we’re seeing under premier Stefanson is a continuation of Brian Pallister’s plan,” he told reporters. Promises to increase funding in health care and education haven’t been met, he said.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS“The PCs continuously under-spend. They make the big announcement but, when it comes time to put in the work, that’s where they fall short,” said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.

“The PCs continuously under-spend,” Kinew said. “They make the big announcement but, when it comes time to put in the work, that’s where they fall short.”

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the budget a “rerun,” saying he found in it hundreds of millions of dollars for projects — including new schools and hospitals — that have already been announced.

“This is really budget designed to give PC MLAs and the premier as many ribbons to cut as possible between now and the next election (expected in 2023),” Lamont said in a scrum.

However, new hospitals are being built or expanded while there isn’t enough people to staff them, the Liberal leader said.

New schools are being built but there needs to be more investments in the existing ones and the people who work and attend them, he added. “That’s not happening to an adequate degree.”

— with files from Danielle Da Silva

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 12, 2022 4:01 PM CDT: Graphic added.

Updated on Tuesday, April 12, 2022 7:12 PM CDT: Writethru with more details, comments, photos.

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