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Lucky stone for first budget?

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 
Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard has chosen a necklace instead of shoes for her first budget.

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KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard has chosen a necklace instead of shoes for her first budget. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

It's a sterling silver pendant with a stone found along the shore of Lake Winnipeg.

Kids call them lucky stones because they have tiny holes bore through them by generations of waves grinding sand through them.

Jennifer Howard hopes it's her lucky stone as she prepares to introduce her first budget as Manitoba's finance minister Thursday. Instead of the new pair of shoes finance ministers traditionally buy for budget day, she settled on a $35 necklace from Hilary Druxman Design in the Exchange District.

Howard said she picked the necklace because it was designed and made in Winnipeg and a portion of the proceeds will go to the United Way.

Howard said the budget will be a "meat and potatoes" document with no major taxes increases -- or cuts.

"There are no big surprises," she said. "There's not going to be any big moves on taxes in any direction, either tax increases or tax reductions. In all budgets different fees may go up to compensate for the recent cost of services, but you're not going to see anything move on taxes."

The NDP is still smarting from last year when, without warning, it hiked the provincial sales tax by one point to eight per cent and axed a requirement to have a referendum on it. The Opposition Progressive Conservatives are suing to fight the increase in court.

The Selinger government has already signalled it's backing off a 2011 election campaign promise to eliminate the school tax for seniors ages 65 and over by 2015. The government said it will need an additional year to phase in the tax credit because it's under the gun not only to eliminate the deficit in three years, but to deal with lower-than-anticipated federal transfer payments due to a dispute with Ottawa over how many people live in Manitoba.

Howard said talks between Manitoba and Statistics Canada continue on Manitoba's contention the agency underestimated the province's population by as many as 18,000 people in the 2011 census. The forecast summary deficit for this budget year is $432 million.

She also said the budget will focus on jobs, training and the economy. As part of that, Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton and Jobs and the Economy Minister Theresa Oswald are to outline the province's five-year, $5.5-billion infrastructure plan today.

Howard said the budget will feature some modest spending increases in frontline services like health care.

"We are going to continue to try to keep growth in spending at a rate that is lower than the growth in the economy, but at the same time, if there's a flood, we're going to fight the flood," she said. "I'm not going to make a decision not to protect people's homes because we have a deficit."

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said Howard's first fiscal plan will be a "placebo budget" tailored to get Manitobans to forget about the PST increase and the expanded number of services that can be taxed under the PST, such as haircuts costing more than $50.

"The NDP government is counting on Manitobans to swallow the sugar pill and forgiving and forgetting about what just happened to us, the largest tax and fee hikes in the history of Manitoba," Pallister said.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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