Manitoba government promises to use sales tax hike for roads, bridges, schools

WINNIPEG – Manitoba’s NDP government answered critics of its controversial sales tax increase Tuesday with a “back to basics” throne speech that promised better roads, beefed-up flood protection and a revamped school curriculum.

The government, which has taken a hit in the polls since it raised the PST in July to eight per cent from seven, said it will spend every penny of the increase to fix Manitoba’s roads and bridges. Premier Greg Selinger said the province will spend $5.5 billion over the next five years on flood-proofing and patching up key highways.

“We have to focus on the basics and that’s what we’re doing in this throne speech,” Selinger said.

“We know it’s been a tough period. We have listened to Manitobans and they’ve said, ‘If you are going to do anything with respect to taxes, make sure we get some benefits for it.’ We’re going to show tangible benefits that will grow the economy.”

The speech, which was short on detail, touched on a variety of areas. It promised everything from closing loopholes for payday lending companies to a revamped school curriculum to a potential polar bear provincial park on Hudson Bay.

“It was the longest speech from the throne I’ve ever heard. The government basically crammed everything in there, including the kitchen sink,” said Conservative Opposition Leader Brian Pallister.

“I’ve never met a person yet who had that many priorities and got anything done. A government that is focused on everything is focused on nothing.

“The only thing they did not talk about and did not mention is deficits.”

The throne speech begins a four-week legislative sitting and follows an acrimonious, extended session that continued through the summer. The Tories stalled the sales tax legislation announced in April’s budget and the sitting didn’t come to a close until September.

While Selinger said the government is committing new cash from the tax increase to fix provincial roads and bridges, many of the projects have been discussed previously. The province plans to boost flood protection for Highway 75, a key artery that runs down to the United States border and is often closed during the spring flood.

There are also plans to upgrade the Trans-Canada Highway to Ontario and to spend money in Winnipeg to expand rapid transit. Investing in highways fosters economic growth because it allows the private sector to deliver more products to key markets, Selinger said.

“That means they are going to need more skilled workers, more employees manufacturing those goods. These things go together.”

But many, still smarting from the unexpected tax increase, were skeptical.

Elliot Sims, Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the promised infrastructure projects don’t justify the provincial tax hike.

“A lot of these are projects that have been in the works for years, if not decades,” he said. “We still don’t have the rationale for why they need a new tax to pay for old infrastructure projects.”

Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, said investing in infrastructure makes sense, but much of the money appears to be going to provincial projects rather than to communities that need it.

“There are almost 80 boil-water (advisories) in Manitoba,” he said. “There is no talk about municipal water and sewer. Everything seems to be going to the provincial infrastructure.”

New Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari said she supports fixing roads and bridges but noted the NDP have had 14 years to do so.

The speech promised several new pieces of legislation, including a law requiring real estate agents and contractors to fully disclose all costs to homeowners. Although the province has already gone after payday lending companies, Selinger promised to close loopholes that allow for high-interest lines-of-credit.

The government also said it will introduce a law to better protect roadside workers and revamp its school curriculum — including math, science and literature.

The NDP also hinted it will strengthen laws related to witness protection and gang members.

The province said it would also begin consultations toward establishing a polar bear provincial park on the shores of Hudson Bay. Researchers have discovered more polar bear dens in the area around Churchill, Man., Selinger said.

“We’ve got protected areas there already,” he said. “This would … take it to the next level.”