Finance Minister Scott Fielding has revealed another significant piece of the province's financial plan ahead of Wednesday's budget.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding has revealed another significant piece of the province's financial plan ahead of Wednesday's budget.

At a news conference Tuesday, Fielding announced he has budgeted $1.2 billion this fiscal year to protect Manitobans from COVID-19 and prepare the province for future pandemic costs.

"COVID-19 is the most important aspect of our provincial budget," Fielding told reporters outside Cadham Provincial Laboratory, flanked by Health Minister Heather Stefanson and lab staff.

"Our government's main priority is to protect Manitobans and to advance Manitoba," he said, adding the budget will outline immediate priorities and chart the province's path forward when the pandemic ends.

Fielding promised help is on the way for business owners.

"There are business supports and relief that will be part of (Wednesday's) budget," he said.

Fielding made the announcement at the provincial lab, which has conducted tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Health Minister Heather Stefanson</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Health Minister Heather Stefanson

Rather than carrying on the age-old finance ministers' tradition of buying a pair of shoes before the budget, Fielding continued with the Pallister government's custom of giving a new pair of shoes to a working Manitoban. This time, Chaturika Mesgun, an employee at the lab, received a pair of Blundstone boots.

Stefanson said the gift is a sign of appreciation.

"Timely, accurate testing data is critical to ensuring our public-health officials have the information they need to help protect Manitoba families," the health minister said.

"Cadham staff have risen to an incredible challenge over the last year and we thank them for everything they do behind the scenes to fight COVID-19.

"Our government's top priority over the last year has been protecting Manitobans. For over a year we've been making critical investments across government to help Manitobans face the challenges posed by the global pandemic."

In recent days, the government announced it expects to incur a $1.6-billion deficit for the forthcoming fiscal year.

It also revealed that Manitoba property owners will receive cheques this year, rebating them for a portion of their education taxes.

And, it has promised $50 million in the new budget towards dealing with surgical backlogs caused by the pandemic.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Finance minister Scott Fielding hands laboratory technician Chaturika Mesgun a pair of shoes at Cadham Provincial Laboratory.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Finance minister Scott Fielding hands laboratory technician Chaturika Mesgun a pair of shoes at Cadham Provincial Laboratory.

Most of the $1.2 billion announced Tuesday will go towards pandemic-related health and education costs:

● $230 million for personal protective equipment, testing and vaccine site infrastructure, contact tracing and other preparations as part of the province's overall public-health response

● $350 million for additional health-care systems costs in preparation for a potential third wave of COVID-19

● $160 million to support school and education needs over the current and next school years

● $100 million for the vaccine program

● $40 million for Manitoba Restart Program capital initiatives at the municipal level.

Fielding said the remaining $300 million will be set aside for unexpected expenses.

The finance minister said that to date, the province has committed $3.2 billion to address the pandemic.

The $1.2 billion in this year's budget "really will focus in on protecting Manitobans in a large way," Fielding said. He compared the Manitoba budget allocation for COVID-19 spending per capita to Ontario and Alberta's budget allocations. "We're spending more," he said.

A "good portion" of the $100 million for the COVID-19 vaccine program will address staffing needs so Manitoba will be able to administer the targeted 20,000 doses a day, Fielding said. "There's more than enough money."

More details about the plan for phasing out education property taxes and issuing a tax rebate will be revealed in the budget, Fielding said.

Last week, Premier Brian Pallister announced a $1.6-billion "education funding guarantee" of no less than $1.6 billion of additional education spending over four years. Pallister said Thursday that the education property tax reduction will benefit owners of 658,000 residential, farm, commercial and other properties in Manitoba.

Fielding said the PC government knows Manitobans who are unemployed and underemployed as a result of the pandemic, need help.

"We do think Manitobans deserve a break and we know that Manitobans need some relief during the pandemic. We'll outline some of the tax measures we're taking (Wednesday)," he said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew told reporters Tuesday his party won't delay the budget from being introduced. Last year, the NDP used procedural tactics to delay the introduction of the budget for eight days. The tactic was aimed at preventing the Tory government from introducing a series of bills, which were posted on the legislative order paper but not distributed to MLAs or the public. That's not the opposition's plan this year, Kinew said.

"There's no plans to raise any matter of privilege," Kinew said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont doubts the Pallister government will spend the $1.2 billion it promised Tuesday.

"It makes huge promises and puffs up its budget to make it look like they're being generous," Lamont told reporters Tuesday. "They have no intention of spending it and then, at the end of the year, everyone wonders why things aren't going right. Then, they'll say 'Look at all we've cut.' It's a very dishonest approach that is designed to mislead Manitobans to make it look like they're spending."

— with files from Larry Kusch

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.

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