December 17, 2017

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Opinion

Pallister crossed fingers on tax promise

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister promised not to increase taxes without a referendum.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister promised not to increase taxes without a referendum.

Perhaps Brian Pallister crossed his fingers when he promised Manitobans the right to vote in a referendum on any major tax increase.

For Pallister and others whose memories may be foggy on that particular election-platform plank, here it is: “A new Progressive Conservative government will bring in legislation in the first legislative session restoring Manitobans’ right to vote on any proposed major tax increases.”

Premier Pallister is now floating the idea of imposing a health-care premium tax.

The proposal is vague, but it’s a good bet it would cost Manitobans hundreds of dollars annually. That means a Progressive Conservative health tax would probably be comparable to the NDP’s PST hike.

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Perhaps Brian Pallister crossed his fingers when he promised Manitobans the right to vote in a referendum on any major tax increase.

For Pallister and others whose memories may be foggy on that particular election-platform plank, here it is: "A new Progressive Conservative government will bring in legislation in the first legislative session restoring Manitobans’ right to vote on any proposed major tax increases."

Premier Pallister is now floating the idea of imposing a health-care premium tax.

The proposal is vague, but it’s a good bet it would cost Manitobans hundreds of dollars annually. That means a Progressive Conservative health tax would probably be comparable to the NDP’s PST hike.

"It’s most certainly a tax increase — there’s no doubt of that," Pallister said when asked about the proposal.

Now, the premier is adamant all of the money would go into health care.

That’s nonsense.

There’s one taxpayer and one provincial budget — arguing about which taxpayers’ money goes under which budget line is like arguing about which end of the bathtub to fill with water.

Other provinces are already dispensing with this kind of fictional funding scheme for health care.

Alberta tried a health-care tax and got rid of it in 2009. British Columbia’s former Liberal government cut its health-care tax in half and its new NDP-Green coalition government has promised to completely phase it out.

Here’s another dose of reality: Manitoba’s health-care system isn’t underfunded. Manitoba spends $7,120 per person on health-care, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. That’s second-highest in the country. If money could fix Manitoba’s problem, the problem would already be fixed.

The issue of spending isn’t only applicable to health care. Remember when the PCs promised to spend more than the NDP during the election? No? That’s because nobody in their right mind would have even hinted at increased spending while voters were going to the polls in the wake of runaway deficits and repeated credit-rating downgrades.

But here’s what happened.

The PCs’ first budget increased overall spending by $756 million.

The PCs’ second budget increased overall spending by another $520 million.

If this Progressive Conservative government had simply held government spending to NDP levels, the province’s financial picture wouldn’t be nearly as bleak.

Nor can the province blame its financial problems on Manitobans for failing to pay enough in taxes. A family in Regina with an income of $75,000 pays $4,510 in provincial tax. A family in Winnipeg with the same income pays $7,474 in provincial tax. Manitobans are already paying plenty of taxes.

Despite all of this, the premier thinks it’s OK to consider imposing major taxes without asking taxpayers for their permission through a referendum.

Let’s break this down. A health-care tax would hit virtually all Manitobans. It would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.

And this isn’t the first time this issue has come up.

Premier Pallister is talking about imposing a provincial carbon tax. It, too, would hit virtually all Manitobans. It, too, would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions.

Both health-care taxes and carbon taxes sure walk like a major tax and quack like a major tax. But somehow, in the mind of the premier, his referendum promise doesn’t apply to these major tax increases.

Apparently a more honest rendering of Pallister’s referendum promise would look like this: "A new Progressive Conservative government will raise any tax by any amount at any moment and we’ll only hold a referendum if we’re hiking the PST or income taxes."

Maybe voters won’t notice the difference between the actual promise and the alternative version, but Pallister should talk to his predecessor about what happens to premiers who cross their fingers while making promises about taxes.

Todd MacKay is the prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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