“Underwhelming” was Thursday’s byword after Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard delivered a budget speech devoid of major spending increases, and a promise to balance the books in 2016 — just in time for the next provincial election.
After too many years of excessive spending and tax grabbing by this government, perhaps an underwhelming budget is a welcome change of pace.
As The Canadian Press notes in its budget story, this is the first time in three years that an NDP budget contains no personal or business tax increases.
There’s also a two per cent cap on spending growth, and a promise to freeze or cut the budgets of nine government departments — this as Howard told members of the Legislative Assembly that the government is attempting to live within its means, without cutting front-line services.
“That isn’t about providing people with less services. We aren’t asking Manitobans to do with less,” Howard said. “We want them to have excellent services, but we need to get more efficient at providing those services.”
Yet this was an especially underwhelming budget for most of western Manitoba, save for the previously announced $5.5 billion that will be directed toward roads and bridges — some of which — such as improvements to the Trans-Canada Highway — had already been announced and re-announced ad nauseum.
The City of Brandon was mentioned all but three times during the entirety of Howard’s budget speech. The province promised to expand its “successful” partnership with the City of Winnipeg to build more downtown rental housing in Brandon.
Howard also repeated last year’s budget promise to partner with the city to advance work on the reconstruction of the Daly Overpass and also hinted a coming improvements to Victoria Avenue — possibly another partnership with the city, given the minister’s wording.
There was no further detail given as to what these partnerships would look like, but we have to question why Brandon has to partner with the province to get provincial infrastructure completed.
We also note that there was absolutely no mention of two other major projects in this city that certainly could have used an injection of capital funding — upgrades to the Brandon Municipal Airport, and the next phase of the Assiniboine Community College’s move from its Victoria Avenue campus to the North Hill.
These projects are important not just to this city, but to western Manitoba as a whole, and deserve more attention from this government.
Some of the other notable points in the budget that will affect Westman residents include:
• The introduction of a new Rent Assist benefit to help people on social assistance. Rent support for recipients will rise to 75 per cent of the median market rent, over four years.
• A promise to once again increase the minimum wage, though by how much was not announced.
• $5.5 million for new child-care spaces and better salaries for workers.
• Minor service fee increases for drilling and municipal planning applications.
The government also counted 2014 as the year to start eliminating school taxes for seniors by 2016. Howard said that all senior homeowners will be able to apply for a school tax rebate of up to $235 this year, “taking an additional 7,200 seniors of the school tax rolls.”
We’re not entirely sold on the idea of eliminating public education taxes for people who reach the age of 65. In our opinion it’s in all Manitobans’ interest to provide quality education to our youth.
This year’s budget does run a $357-million deficit and pushes net debt up by $1.3 billion, but Howard said the government is still “on track” to balance the books by 2016.
Following Howard’s timeline, and assuming that the next provincial election will likely fall in April 2016 — thanks to the timing of the next federal election — then the NDP plans to steal the thunder from opposition parties by trotting out a balanced budget in front of tax-weary voters.
But that comes with a pretty big “if.”