The Progressive Conservatives’ 2021 provincial budget has been branded short-sighted and tone deaf after a year of pandemic strain on health care, education and the economy.
Instead of investing in front-line services as many had hoped, the budget delivered on the "tired" conservative ideology of tax cuts, said the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"This is not the budget that Manitoba families needed," CUPE regional director Lee McLeod said by email Wednesday.
"What we see in health care is stop-gap measures only. This does not address inadequate funding of (personal care homes)."
"Personal care homes were the epicentre of COVID, but the province continues to cut their funding," said Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She said when she inquired at a technical briefing whether the province will end the funding freeze for personal care homes, McCracken didn’t get an answer but was told that additional funds will create new beds. The budget outlines $9.3 million for personal care home expansions previously announced in Steinbach and Carman that will add more than 120 beds.
A lot of the health care budget numbers don’t add up, said Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.
"If you take away the spin, it looks like funding for most vital areas that Manitobans count on won’t keep up with the rate of inflation," he said. "They claim to be making investments in areas like diagnostics, EMS, patient transport and cancer treatment but they’ve made similar claims in the past," Moroz said in an email. Members are still waiting for increased supports and staffing to handle routine patient loads, never mind the increased demands of the pandemic, he said.
In budget documents, the province touted record investments in public schools, increased the Manitoba Bursary Fund by $4 million and interest-free student loans by $1.4 million, but does not mention cuts to post-secondary schools.
The budget reduces grants to universities and colleges by $8.7 million, a cut of 1.3 per cent, and will lead to reduced program offerings and increased tuition fees, says the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.
"This is a tone-deaf budget from a government that cuts education and health care to pay for tax cuts in the middle of a pandemic" said president Scott Forbes. "It has become one of the hallmarks of this government, driving up tuition fees, and putting post-secondary education out of reach for more and more Manitobans," he said in an email.
The province is using the pandemic to "further upend the post-secondary system," said Brenden Gali of the Canadian Federation of Students. The 2021 budget "has continued the current government’s yearly tradition of cutting public funding for universities and colleges in Manitoba. These annual cuts have once again come alongside tuition fee increases, further downloading the responsibility of funding higher learning onto students and their families," Gali said in an email.
Offering teachers a tax rebate of up to $150 for education supplies, and removing the retail sales tax on haircuts and spa treatments, are "boutique" budget items that don’t address the challenges facing Manitoba, said McCracken.
"Boutique announcements do not create the social and green infrastructure Manitoba needs in 2021," she said.
"Government should be leading the recovery through forward-looking plans to protect our economic future, with the goal of maintaining employment and getting thousands of Manitobans back to work in fairly paid, family-supporting jobs," said Kevin Rebeck, Manitoba Federation of Labour president.
The budget missed the mark when it comes to the most vulnerable Manitobans, said the executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.
"The vast majority of what the government is doing is geared toward people who already have money, as opposed to people who don’t," Kate Kehler said. Scrapping the education tax and freezing auto fees will help some of the working poor, but not as much as a boost to the minimum wage, she said.
A $20-million increase to the Rent Assist subsidy could help poor Manitobans, but Kehler said that depends on whether the threshold for qualifying also shifts.
The budget praises a reduction in child poverty — and the fact Manitoba is no longer its capital — without mentioning that the federal baby bonus is likely responsible for most of that.
Child care is key to an equitable economic recovery in Manitoba, but Kehler — and the head of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce — both wondered how the funding announced Wednesday would compare with the need in Manitoba.
There is a $5-million increase in operating grants and a freeze on fee hikes, but it’s unclear if the subsidy level for operators will be enough to retain qualified workers, Kehler noted. "The freeze in fees can be a double-edged sword," she said, particularly given that some child-care centres have closed during the pandemic.
"We don’t know how those numbers are going to shake out in the end, and are we actually going to end up better off," said Kehler.
— with files from Dylan Robertson
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.