December 9, 2019

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Province targets infrastructure bump, post-secondary accountability in throne speech

The Progressive Conservative government is moving to implement much of its election campaign platform, setting dates for some promised tax cuts and pledging action to make Winnipeg's streets safer.

In Tuesday's speech from the throne, the Manitoba government set out dozens of new initiatives and referenced many bills it will introduce in the next legislative session.

It promised modest increases in the highway construction budget over the next four years, while vowing "an ambitious program" of infrastructure investments in hospitals, schools, universities and Crown corporations.

To that end, the Tory government led by Premier Brian Pallister said it will develop a dedicated fund for infrastructure projects "that stimulates private-sector investment and job creation" for inclusion in the 2020 provincial budget.

WHAT’S NEW

Many of the promises laid out in Tuesday's throne speech were carried over from the Progressive Conservatives 2019 election campaign. Here are some of the new ideas the government has put forward:

— A promise to invest an extra $10 million for a “comprehensive strategy that includes stepped-up enforcement, increased co-ordination between police and business owners, and enhanced resources for the public safety investigations unit to bring drug dealers to justice.”

Many of the promises laid out in Tuesday's throne speech were carried over from the Progressive Conservatives 2019 election campaign. Here are some of the new ideas the government has put forward:

— A promise to invest an extra $10 million for a “comprehensive strategy that includes stepped-up enforcement, increased co-ordination between police and business owners, and enhanced resources for the public safety investigations unit to bring drug dealers to justice.”

— Launching a Partners in Economic Growth (PEG) initiative with regional and sector partners “selected to focus on the province’s areas of economic strength, including agriculture, aerospace and technology.”

— Replacing the Civil Service Act with the Public Service Act, “reflecting modern workplace standards and values.”

— Hiring eight new conservation officers to “enhance efforts to protect and preserve our wildlife,” including better enforcement of the Wildlife Act and prosecuting “cruel and inhumane night hunting practices.”

— Launching an infrastructure development program worth “billions,” focused on “hospitals, schools, universities and Crown corporations,” and increasing the highways budget to $400 million (from $350 million) over four years.

— Issuing mandate letters for post-secondary institutions “outlining expected students’ outcomes and financial accountability.”

— Establishing a “Municipal Audit and Accountability Program” for a third-party look at how municipalities can improve services without raising taxes.

— Starting a new program “to support Manitobans with disabilities that is distinct and separate from existing Employment Income Assistance program supports.”

— Setting dates for tax relief promises laid out during the provincial election campaign, including removing PST on salon services and haircuts over $50, and professional fees related to preparation of wills and tax returns, starting in January. Probate fees will also be eliminated and vehicle registration fees reduced by 10 per cent, both by July 1.

— Promising to introduce a resolution in the legislature to “affirm Manitoba’s commitment to freedom of conscience and religion of public servants” — an apparent response to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols.

— Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Work will begin on a number of health initiatives pledged in the recent election campaign, including reconstructing St. Boniface Hospital's emergency department, creating 200 new nursing positions by 2023, and reducing wait lists for cataract, knee and hip surgeries.

Pallister said the throne speech was about government keeping its word.

"The promises we made during the election were sincere promises — all priced (out). And we're going to keep those promises... That's what this speech was largely about today — following up, landing the plane, not just talking about taking it off," he told reporters.

Beginning Jan. 1, the provincial sales tax on professional fees related to the preparation of wills and tax returns will be eliminated. The PST will also be removed from personal services over $50, including salon services.

Meanwhile, probate fees will be eliminated and vehicle registration fees will be reduced by 10 per cent on July 1.

There was no mention in the speech about a promise to remove the PST from home insurance, but Pallister said such a move will likely be announced in next year's budget.

The government said it would proceed with a promised plan to crack down on drug dealers and "make downtown Winnipeg safe again."

The government will spend an additional $10 million on a strategy that includes stepped-up enforcement, increased co-ordination between police and business owners, and enhanced resources "to bring drug dealers to justice." More money will also be dedicated to RCMP crime-reduction teams across rural Manitoba.

REACTION

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he's more concerned about the actions the re-elected Progressive Conservatives will take than he is about the throne speech itself.

"So what we know about this government to date is that they’re cheap. When it comes to talking about things like health care and education, I think we can expect there to be more cuts," Kinew said. "What they did to health care in their first term, they’re now going to turn to the school system and they’re going to do that."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he's more concerned about the actions the re-elected Progressive Conservatives will take than he is about the throne speech itself.

"So what we know about this government to date is that they’re cheap. When it comes to talking about things like health care and education, I think we can expect there to be more cuts," Kinew said. "What they did to health care in their first term, they’re now going to turn to the school system and they’re going to do that."

He also chastised the province for promising to send mandate letters to post-secondary institutions, which would be a first for a Manitoba government.

Kinew said this would be "an infringement on the academic freedom" of faculty and "an overreach."

 


 

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused the provincial government of focusing too much on tax relief for the rich.

"What the government’s doing is sort of Robin Hood in reverse — it’s taking money from people who can’t afford it, because there’s a lot of stuff they didn’t mention. They’re cutting funds to people on (Employment Income Assistance). They’re firing people. They’re freezing wages," Lamont said.

"A lot of the benefits of that are all just flowing to the top, and that’s the opposite of what needs to be happening in Manitoba.”

 


 

Mayor Brian Bowman was upbeat, saying: "There was a lot more attention (paid) to the city of Winnipeg" than in previous throne speeches.

"The things that jumped out at me in the speech from the throne were the public safety measures — something we've been calling for. To see increased attention to public safety in the city of Winnipeg is absolutely something that we welcome."

He said news of an extra $10 million for a safer streets strategy, that includes enforcement, increased co-ordination between police and business owners, and enhanced resources to bring drug dealers to justice is "a step in the right direction."

"There were some positive things here that, if properly executed in a collaborative way, will deliver some good outcomes for provincial taxpayers as well as Winnipeg taxpayers."

 


 

The head of the union representing civil servants expressed concern the government was silent on filling vacant positions, particularly within the Infrastructure Department.

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, said she's concerned about the possibility of private contractors taking on tasks such as snow clearing.

Infrastructure lost 220 positions in one year, and there are 2,000 fewer government workers now than in 2016, when the Progressive Conservatives took power, she said. "My concern is what happens to the public system we've got today."

She said there were no reassurances "that our public services are going to be there (and) that they are a priority for this government."

Pallister also promised to act on the recommendations of the Manitoba Police Commission, led by David Asper, to improve public safety in downtown Winnipeg. He said Tuesday he's viewed a draft copy of the commission's report.

The government is prepared to announce additional funding when the report is completed, the premier said.

"I think that it's very likely there are some necessary investments that will ensue fairly quickly as a consequence of the Asper recommendations and others," he said. "I wouldn't want to suggest that we're going to defer and postpone investments on public safety."

The government reiterated a promise to speed up the permitting system at municipal and regional levels, with the goal of boosting new investments worth $5.1 billion per year.

It said it would also work with the province's two largest cities to better equip front-line communications services to keep Manitobans safe, including the introduction of "Next Generation 911 services based on inter-operability with other levels of government and provinces."

The speech also signals the PC government's intent to more closely monitor the province's universities and colleges.

"In order to reduce waste and duplication in our education system, mandate letters will be sent to all post-secondary institutions that receive provincial operating funding outlining expected students' outcomes and financial accountability," according to the speech, read in the legislature by Chief Justice Richard Chartier, pinch-hitting for a convalescing Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon.

As promised during the 2019 election campaign, the government will introduce legislation to eliminate Sunday and holiday shopping restrictions, while allowing municipalities to set conditions on retail hours, if they choose.

The highway construction budget will be increased to $400 million from $350 million over the next four years, and the government promised to work with the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and other groups to get more bang for its construction dollar.

The government also said it would begin consultations to develop a new program to support Manitobans with disabilities "that is distinct and separate from existing Employment Income Assistance program supports."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Legislature reporter

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Read full biography

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, November 19, 2019 at 2:05 PM CST: Adds sidebar

6:27 PM: Final version, adds photos, sidebars

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