MATTHEW KERR/BRANDON SUN
Finance Minister Stan Struthers talks about the 2012 budget at the Keystone Centre on Wednesday. Struthers addressed the gas tax, investing in infrastructure and budget cuts.
A group of 20 invited guests had the chance to question Manitoba Finance Minister Stan Struthers about the 2012-13 budget on Wednesday at the Keystone Centre.
Struthers presented the impacts his budget would have on Westman in 2012-13, noting that $5 million would be spent in the city of Brandon to build up dikes to 300-year flood levels.
Struthers said heavy lobbying from Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell was a factor in the inclusion of four new fully funded firefighter/paramedics for Brandon Fire and Emergency Services in this budget.
One new police officer for the Brandon Police Service will also be funded in this budget, Struthers said.
However, those new spending items come at a time when the province ran a projected $1.12-billion deficit last year, and is budgeted to run a $460-million deficit in 2012-13 after drawing from the Fiscal Stabilization Fund.
Keystone Centre board member George McLeod asked Struthers how long the province will be paying those bills and how long range planning would be impacted.
"It depends on a lot of things," Struthers said. "The flood happened right in the middle of the 2011-12 budget season. We are fixing bridges and roads connected to that event this year. It depends on whether the federal government comes through with its obligations in this. The feds haven’t come on board on all the ag-recovery plans we signed on to last year. Even on the farm side, they are coming a dollar short and a day late.
"The feds have said they are coming through. I keep checking my mailbox for the cheque and I haven’t seen it. If they come through, it shortens the time period where we are spending money on the flood."
Walter Finlay, a councillor with the RM of Glenwood, said he was pleased to see the government take a look at its spending habits.
"I have told the previous minister of finance and the one before that, that if I ran my business by spending more than I took in every year, sooner or later I’d be in trouble," he said.
Struthers said overall, federal transfer payments to the province have "flatlined."
"They can spin it any way they like, we’re not getting any more money than what we got the year before or the year before that," Struthers said. "That has an impact on our ability to provide comparable services in education and health care at comparable rates of taxation with other provinces."
RM of Sifton Reeve Rick Plaisier, a member of the Municipal Health Services Committee, said he was taken aback by the province’s decision to slash the number of health authorities to five from 11. He asked Struthers if the job losses expected from the amalgamation will come from the administration ranks.
"We don’t want there to be front-line (service) cuts," Struthers said. "That would defeat the purpose of why we are doing this."
Plaisier asked whether the new health board would be an elected one, more accountable to the people they serve rather than a government-appointed one, as is the current practice.
"The question always comes up that if you start electing, will it cause the revolution that happened in the U.S. a couple hundred years ago," Struthers said. "If you elect and don’t give the ability to tax, what responsibilities go along with that? It is a big question and we should have a discussion about it. There’s still a lot of discussions that need to take place."
Struthers addressed the 2.5 cent per litre gas tax that will be introduced, the first such increase since 1993. Taxes on purple gas (for off-road use) will rise three cents per litre.
"It’s still the second-lowest in the country and it is the main way we fund infrastructure projects in Manitoba," he said. "Whatever money we generate through this and the $35 increase in vehicle registrations, every dollar is going back into infrastructure. You know as well as anyone the damage resulting from the flood, never mind the challenges we would face if the flood had never happened."
Finlay asked Struthers to drive Highway 21 from Highway 2 to the U.S. border.
"Don’t bother taking a car, because you won’t make it," Finlay said. "I’m serious. They are hauling rock from Stonewall to Hartney. I have no idea who decided to do that, but why would you haul stone 200 miles when you can get it from 10 miles away? They are hauling rock in from Ethelbert and dumping it a mile from where they got it last year. Talk about waste. That costs one pile of money."
The government plans to broaden the reach of the provincial sales tax, making it applicable to a wider variety of goods and services. Struthers said the government needs to raise its revenues and that the increases show the government is getting its house in order.
"You just raised my insurance bill $600," Finlay told Struthers.
Struthers noted the consultations before the budget and the ones afterwards are a key part of the process.
"Budgets are about priorities," he said. "Budgets are about listening to people and reflecting those priorities in the spending, expenditives and revenues that you undertake. It’s more than putting together a bunch of numbers. And when you have a flood and a global recession, you know you are going to have challenges."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 19, 2012