‘We’re in a stronger position’: finance minister pre-budget talk touts investments
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The Progressive Conservative government will present the final budget of its mandate Tuesday, as rebounding revenues set the stage for big-ticket spending ahead of the looming general election.
Manitobans can expect to see a financial blueprint in line with their priorities and one that helps with the rising cost of living, according to Finance Minister Cliff Cullen.
“We’re listening to Manitobans and that will be reflective of our budget tomorrow,” Cullen said at a news conference Monday in Winnipeg.
The governing PCs continued to buck the long-standing tradition of having the finance minister buy a new pair of shoes ahead of the budget.
On Monday, Cullen chose to donate two pair of winter boots to the Downtown Community Safety Partnership, to be given to people in need, as a symbolic gesture of what’s to come in the budget. He also repeated his government’s commitment to provide a $3.6-million operating grant to non-profit safety organization in the coming fiscal year.
“We all know how giving Manitobans are of their time and of their financial resources,” said Cullen, who was appointed finance minister in January.
The Tories intend to make significant investments in health care, education, social services in what will be the final budget of their mandate. The general election is scheduled for on or before Oct. 3.
Additional affordability measures to help Manitobans with rising costs are also on deck, Cullen said, but residents shouldn’t necessarily expect another round of cheques to arrive in the mail.
The PCs have also promised a 50 per cent rebate on education property taxes this year for residential and farm property owners.
“We have been increasing budgets when it comes to health care, education and social services year over year and that has continued and that will continue tomorrow.”–Finance Minister Cliff Cullen
“We’re in a stronger position now, I would say, than ever before, and I think that provides opportunities both for strategic investments in health care and education, which really is the future of Manitoba,” Cullen said. “Manitobans want us to respond to the health-care challenges, so that’s going to require investments.”
He argued the government is not loosening its purse strings solely to persuade voters to support the PCs in an election year, after seven years of restrained spending. The province is in a better financial position after running massive deficits through the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“We have been increasing budgets when it comes to health care, education and social services year over year and that has continued and that will continue tomorrow.”
In Budget 2022, the government projected a deficit of $548 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2023. However, at the mid-year financial update, the province’s financial situation was looking rosier, with a deficit of $193 million — a $355-million improvement.
Manitoba also posted $1.1 billion in additional revenue in its mid-year fiscal update, owing to increased revenue from Manitoba Hydro and income and retail sales tax, prompting $850 million in additional spending on programs to address the rising cost of living, health care, settlement of Ukrainian refugees and municipal funding.
The provincial treasury is also set to benefit from a forecast $577-million increase in equalization payments from the federal government. Additional spending on health care will also be supplemented with money from Ottawa via an increase to the Canada Health Transfer and a new bilateral funding agreement.
With additional cash at hand, Cullen said the pre-election budget will be centred on economic development, adding jobs and growing government revenues, while continuing towards a balanced budget.
“We want to make sure that Manitobans are competitive and Manitoba as a province is competitive and I think you will see that reflected in tomorrow’s budget,” he said.
University of Winnipeg economics Prof. Philippe Cyrenne said the Tories will be challenged to fulfill its spending promises while managing increasing costs owing to inflation, rising interest rates and upcoming labour negotiations, and also keep an eye on a possible recession.
However, even fiscally conservative voters recognize this is an unusual budgetary situation, he said Monday.
“You’re coming out of the COVID period, which just wreaked havoc on the health system,” Cyrenne said. “Among the conservative base, I think they will be a little more understanding of increased spending than they might otherwise.”
The Tories are unlikely to leave much spending room for the next government by running a very modest deficit, he added.
“The last thing you want to do is stock the cupboard and let the next government come in and raid it,” Cyrenne said. “When it’s an election year, you’re competing against the potential incoming government.”
NDP finance critic Adrien Sala said the Tories can’t be trusted to follow through on spending promises contained in Tuesday’s budget.
“There’s a lot of reasons to be worried that if we do continue to give this government the benefit of the doubt, they will continue to do what they’ve done over the last seven years — which is continue to make cuts to services Manitobans rely on,” Sala said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.