September 18, 2019

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Property tax promise will be hardest pledge to keep

Opinion

The majority of the promises made by Brian Pallister and the PC party in the provincial election campaign were modest ones. Most should be easy to implement.

The pledges, including spending $2 billion more on health care over four years, building 20 schools and working closer with police to fight crime, are largely continuations of what government was already doing.

This election was more about Pallister seeking approval for his government’s agenda – especially in health care – than getting a new mandate.

But there was one surprise election commitment – phasing out education property taxes – that will be far more difficult and controversial to implement.

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The majority of the promises made by Brian Pallister and the PC party in the provincial election campaign were modest ones. Most should be easy to implement.

The pledges, including spending $2 billion more on health care over four years, building 20 schools and working closer with police to fight crime, are largely continuations of what government was already doing.

This election was more about Pallister seeking approval for his government’s agenda – especially in health care – than getting a new mandate.

But there was one surprise election commitment – phasing out education property taxes – that will be far more difficult and controversial to implement.

The Tories pledged to eliminate provincial and school division property taxes over 10 years, beginning in 2023. Pallister argued it's an outdated way of funding the public school system.

He wasn’t backing away from that promise Wednesday when he sat down with reporters during his first post-election press conference. He says government has already started working on it.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister wasn’t backing away from his campaign promise to phase out education property taxes when he sat down with reporters during his first post-election press conference, Wednesday.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister wasn’t backing away from his campaign promise to phase out education property taxes when he sat down with reporters during his first post-election press conference, Wednesday.

"This is very high priority for me and for our government," said Pallister. "We’ve already done a lot of initial planning (and) pricing and forecasting around the timeframes – which we announced during the election campaign – on how we can phase down the education property tax and its impact on Manitobans."

What that will mean for the future of school divisions – once they no longer have taxation authority – remains unclear. Pallister said that has yet to be determined. The future role of school divisions is already being examined by a K-12 education commission review launched in January. He says it will be through that review and further consultations with Manitobans that decisions will be made about the fate of school divisions.

"This is very high priority for me and for our government." – Premier Brian Pallister

"This is a team decision and it’s going to have to be structured in that way so there’s real dialogue, honest data and we really take a look at what other provinces are doing right, what other provinces aren’t doing as well," said Pallister. "I don’t think that it should be the premier trying to design and prescribe how the whole system should be run."

But Pallister did hint at some level of administrative downsizing, whether that’s through amalgamation or the elimination of school divisions altogether. It may not be a message some school trustees want to hear.

"The research shows that we’re very top heavy in our educational structures in the province," he said. "I’m a front-line guy… I think resources need to be strengthened at the front line in our education system."

Pallister said details like whether the province’s education support levy would be phased out first, or whether it would be reduced at the same time as the special levy charged by school divisions, remain to be determined.

Pallister hinted at some level of administrative downsizing: "We’re very top heavy in our educational structures in the province."

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Pallister hinted at some level of administrative downsizing: "We’re very top heavy in our educational structures in the province."

He also said eliminating the tax could be done in less than 10 years if the province has the fiscal capacity to do so.

That’s an ambitious timeline. And it’s one that will certainly become the subject of great debate among school trustees, teachers, and parents, especially around the issue of local control of education.

If school divisions no longer have taxation authority, what would their role be? If they were eliminated, or amalgamated, what would the implications be for local control of education?

Those are major policy decisions. Between that and the question of where the replacement revenue would come from (estimated at more than $900 million by 2023), this will likely be the single biggest policy issue facing the Pallister government in its second term.

It will probably take two or three years of planning and consulting to execute.

The K-12 commission is expected to release its final report with recommendations in March, said Pallister. From there, the premier is promising an "open and transparent" process for determining how the elimination of the taxes will work and what it will mean for the future of school divisions.

It’s a bold plan. And it’s a risky one politically if it doesn’t go well. But it is a necessary one, since funding education through property taxes is outdated and hits low and middle-income property owners the hardest.

It’s a reform that’s long overdue.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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