News that Manitoba Public Insurance plans to invest some of its capital into road infrastructure is both a good and bad idea at the same time.
No one in this province can argue against the fact that many of our highways, byways and bridges are in a particularly sorry state of disrepair. It’s also an unfortunate fact that under the NDP government, Manitoba’s finances are awash in red ink, as we spend our way into a burdensome debt.
As such, MPI president Marilyn McLaren recently confirmed that the Crown corporation was giving serious consideration to spending money on infrastructure projects that would help improve road conditions and subsequently reduce the costs of insurance claims.
On Saturday, Winnipeg Free Press columnist Dan Lett suggested the theory behind MPI’s infrastructure investments was “sound” because many private insurance companies in the United States and at least one public insurer in British Columbia have been making strategic investments in road infrastructure for years, as a way to improve safety and reduce claims costs.
He also pointed to an MPI survey released in March of this year that showed 63 per cent of respondents supported the strategic investment in streets and roads to make them safer, with 38 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing.
That hasn’t stopped the Opposition Progressive Conservatives from lambasting MPI’s decision. On Monday, the Tories called the plan “at best ill-conceived and at worst deceptive.”
Manitoba Public Insurance has a mandate to provide drivers with insurance, not infrastructure, they insisted. It’s the Manitoba government’s job to take care of our roads, they said, not MPI. Asking Manitobans to pay an extra “under the table” auto tax was hardly justified.
And this on the heels of increased fees on vehicle registration and a 2.5 cent bump in the price of gas out of the spring budget.
Certainly there is an argument to be made for MPI stepping outside of its traditional role of insurance provider, especially if it can show some future benefit in the form of lower insurance costs. Going outside of its insurance mandate worked when MPI decided it would help pay for more Crown prosecutors to curb auto thieves and cover the cost of its immobilizer program in Winnipeg.
But having a Crown corporation pay for road repairs is a different animal, especially when successive provincial governments are at fault for letting road safety slide so badly all these years.
The Tories do have a point when they question why MPI feels it has the moral authority, or the mandate, to spend money on roads and infrastructure, considering that MPI has too often been forced to rebate millions of dollars in insurance costs back to its customers.
The Public Utilities Board first forced MPI to issue a premium rebate of 45 per cent of basic vehicle premiums paid in the 2009-10 insurance year. And on top of the $17 million and $320 million returned to Manitobans in 2011, MPI paid back $63 million in 2008, $60 million in 2007, $58 million in 2006 and $80 million in 2001.
As we have previously written on this page, all these rebates raise some serious questions about vehicle insurance rates in this province, leaving the NDP government and MPI open to accusations of gouging Manitoba drivers over the years.
And now they want to spend more of it, and only in urban areas, apparently — that’s like saying “hey rural Manitoba, MPI thinks your roads don’t matter.”
Manitobans at least have the ability to hold politicians accountable for what they budget and spend, albeit every four years. Outside the PUB, a Crown corporation has no such accountability, and is much more susceptible to lobbying by interested third parties. If MPI feels that strongly about road improvement, provide the necessary road safety data to the province, and suggest improvements.
If there needs to be new sources of revenue found to fix the infrastructure deficit, let the Manitoba government itself impose a tax on provincial ratepayers, and let the NDP live with whatever political fallout ensues — good or bad.
In our opinion, roads and highways are, and should remain, strictly a government matter.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 30, 2012