Voters likely to see through Tories’ sudden burst of generosity
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This week’s public school funding announcement was a sneak preview of what the Stefanson government’s 2023 provincial budget will probably look like, as the Tories open the purse strings before the next election.
Education Minister Wayne Ewasko announced a 6.1 per cent boost to school divisions’ operating budgets for 2023-24, the largest increase in at least 25 years. It’s not quite as “astronomical” (the way Ewasko put it) as it appears when inflation is factored in. Manitoba’s consumer price index remained stubbornly high at eight per cent in December. It’s unclear where inflation will land in 2023.
Still, the extra $100 million for public schools is richer than anything the Progressive Conservative government has provided since coming into office in 2016. The Tories, especially under former premier Brian Pallister, have been nowhere near that generous when funding front-line services.
To some degree, that austerity was necessary to clean up the financial mess left behind by the former NDP government, which was running record deficits during good economic times. The problem is, the Tories cut too much, too fast (they balanced the books briefly in 2019-20). Had they followed their original plan of eliminating the deficit over eight years, they could have achieved a healthier balance between fiscal responsibility and funding important public services. They were in a hurry and it hurt front-line services, particularly in health care and education.
So now, in an election year, they will try to offset the harms caused by that fiscal impatience.
The increase in public school funding this year won’t make up for years of underfunding in education. Per-student spending in school divisions grew by only 4.5 per cent from 2016-17 to 2021-22, according to the province’s Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education and Early Childhood Learning reports ($13,016 to $13,608). That’s well below inflation.
It forced some school divisions to reduce services in key areas, while increasing teacher-student ratios. One year of record funding won’t erase that. It will take years to make up for those funding shortfalls. In the meantime, it has caused significant damage to the quality of education in Manitoba. Ewasko’s claim that his government is “investing in students” is disingenuous, to say the least.
The same story will play out in other departments when Finance Minister Cliff Cullen brings down the province’s 2023 budget, expected in March. It will likely be the heaviest non-pandemic spending budget since the Tories won government. Spending is expected to rise sharply in almost every department. No expense will be spared to try to win the hearts and minds of voters. It will be a Hail Mary budget, the last before the next election, scheduled for Oct. 3.
The province will have the money to bankroll that heavy spending. Manitoba is getting a $577 million increase in equalization payments from Ottawa this year, a 19.7 per cent hike. It’s by far the largest increase Manitoba has received in years. The province is also getting a $142-million boost in the Canada Health Transfer (an 8.7 per cent increase over last year), and $14 million more from the Canada Social Transfer. That’s $733 million in extra funding from the federal government in 2023. Unless Canada falls into a deep recession this year (which appears unlikely), the province’s own-source revenues — including income, corporate and sales taxes — are also expected to rise, at least moderately.
With Manitoba Hydro doing far better than expected, the Tories will have plenty of revenue to spend without increasing the deficit, most recently projected at $193 million for 2022-23. They may even have the fiscal capacity to unveil a balanced budget along with record spending.
The question is: will any of this make a difference to Manitobans when voters go to the polls in October? Not likely. Governments that cut or freeze spending during their terms in office — no matter what the reason — and loosen the purse strings in election years don’t usually do well. It makes voters feel like they’re being bribed with their own money.
What most people want is good governance throughout an entire term in office, not a mad spending spree at the end of it. However, that’s what Manitobans can expect when the Tories unveil their fiscal blueprint in the coming weeks.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.