The Conservative government’s plan to expand broadband Internet in rural areas came as welcome news to local officials yesterday, but a lack of detail regarding the New Building Canada Plan left them disappointed following the federal budget announcement.
On Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled the 2014 federal budget, which includes a $305-million investment over five years to improve broadband coverage in rural and northern communities.
"It’s something we’ve been asking for a long time," said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. "It would be a terrific economic boost because, as you know, if you don’t have high-speed Internet, you’re not in business anymore."
It’s not yet known how much of those dollars will be coming to Manitoba, or what the timeline will be, but Dobrowolski said the announcement is "very encouraging."
"This will go a tremendous way to attracting better economic development in rural Manitoba, if they can have the high-speed Internet."
While there were positive comments regarding the 2014 budget, many people, including Dobrowolski, were expecting more details on the New Building Canada Plan — a 10-year, multibillion-dollar fund for major infrastructure projects.
"The federal government kind of built up that they were going to announce everything in the federal budget and there was really nothing," Dobrowolski said. "I was hoping that there was going to be a more major announcement on Building Canada, the type of dollars they were looking at and that type of thing, so I’m pretty disappointed in that because a lot of our members are counting on that money for this upcoming construction season."
City of Brandon officials were also anxiously awaiting details on the infrastructure fund. Major infrastructure projects in need of funding include upgrades to the Brandon Municipal Airport and the widening of the Daly Overpass on 18th Street.
"I would’ve liked to hear a little bit more reference to it," said deputy mayor Len Isleifson. "There’s been a lot of lead up in the last six to eight months … into this new program ... and we were really anticipating a lot more information."
Isleifson said it would have been nice to hear "actual facts" regarding the infrastructure program.
"I’m a little disappointed in that, but at the same time we need to remain optimistic that we’re going to find out some new things in these programs that are coming up," he said.
Carla Milne, a member of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, was also disappointed that there were no infrastructure announcements.
"There have been certain items mentioned but nothing from a local standpoint. We’re hoping to hear a little bit more with that as far as the direction that they’re taking with it," she said. "It’s always difficult to get down to the details of something this large, but I think just for our own city’s plan, we were hoping to have a bit more detail to make it feasible for us for this year."
Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Larry Maguire said while applications aren’t out yet for the New Building Canada Plan, he has been working with the City of Brandon and surrounding municipalities to ensure their infrastructure priorities are known.
"I’ve actually sat down with the mayor and some of the councillors … to look at the types of priorities that they would have," he said. "Eighteenth Street, upgrading of the bridge there, upgrading airport facilities and a number of others are key components of that. I’m very well aware of them, have been for some time. Therefore, they are my priorities."
The funds are there, Maguire said, "it will be coming forward, it’s been announced and we recommitted to that again today."
"The government is committed to doing this, that’s why we’ve brought the budget out earlier than most years so that we can move forward with getting the preparations to submit applications out as quickly as we can," Maguire said.
Overall, Milne said the chamber is pleased to see that the federal government is ahead of schedule with balancing the budget.
Flaherty’s 10th federal budget all but balances the books this fiscal year, leaving a negligible $2.9-billion shortfall heading into the 2015-16 election year — when Prime Minister Stephen Harper will go to the electorate sporting a surplus that could exceed $6 billion.
"We’re always advocating for the government to look for efficiencies, so they’re looking at managing the compensation costs," Milne said. "They’re looking at savings overall, which will work towards this."
Flaherty announced the Canada Apprentice Loan, which will give apprentices registered in Red Seal trades access to interest-free student loans.
"Definitely a lot of our businesses are in need of these type of students, so any sort of initiative to help encourage people to go down that road is welcomed," Milne said.
Another budget announcement that was met with praise locally was the government’s plan to spend $391.5 million over five years to improve roads, dams and bridges in national parks and historic canals.
"I know people are concerned about the state of (Highway) 10 through Riding Mountain National Park, so I will be working very hard to do what I can on that file," said Robert Sopuck, Conservative MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette.
Also in the budget is $200 million over five years to create the National Disaster Mitigation Program. Maguire was particularly pleased with this announcement, saying it "hits home" for western Manitoba.
"This is $200 million of new money that we can use and it’s very important to our region," he said. "We’ve got both the Souris and the Assiniboine rivers that continue to have regular occurrences of flooding, more lately than before it seems."
» email@example.com, with files from The Canadian Press
• The budget is close to balance, with a $2.9-billion deficit and a $3-billion contingency fund.
• Flaherty forecasts revenues of $276.3 billion and expenditures of $279.2 billion.
• The government makes clear it will balance the budget next year by cutting program spending and reining in public service compensation costs.
• The budget proposes to make retired federal public servants pay half the costs of their health-care plan, up from a quarter now. This would raise annual payments for a retired individual to $550 from $261.
• Adopting families will get a bigger tax break for expenses.
• Higher excise taxes on tobacco will raise the price of a carton of 200 cigarettes by $4 and essentially end the discount on smokes sold at duty-free stores, by raising taxes there by $6 a carton. The increase will reap government $685 million in 2014-15.
• Excise taxes on tobacco will be tied to the Consumer Price Index and automatically adjusted every five years.
• The government plans to bring in legislation to deal with unjustified cross-border price discrimination that sees Canadians pay more for goods.
• Charities will be allowed to use computers to run their lotteries, offering major administrative savings.
» The Canadian Press