Brandonites discuss provincial budget with finance minister
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This article was published 03/12/2021 (260 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With Christmas around the corner, provincial Finance Minister Scott Fielding came to Brandon to talk turkey on Thursday night.
Approximately two dozen notable Brandonites and regular citizens gathered in the Victoria Inn’s Salon 1 for a budget consultation as Manitoba prepares for its second pandemic-era budget in 2022.
Brandon East MLA Len Isleifson, Central Services Minister Reg Helwer, Mayor Rick Chrest, Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Barry Cooper and more occupied the rows of burgundy chairs.
Also present were members of the Brandon University Faculty Association, keen to pin Fielding down on answers regarding contract talks as the University of Manitoba strike continues to drag on and their own collective agreement comes up for negotiation in the new year.
Before the event, BUFA vice-president Jon-Tomas Godin told the Sun that he and his colleagues wanted to know how the province intends on funding higher education and how it will handle public-sector negotiations after Fielding announced that the Public Sector Sustainability Act, which was never proclaimed into law but would have limited salary increases for public servants, would be repealed.
Starting off the evening, Fielding said despite the pandemic preventing in-person budget consultations last year, the province was still able to collect thoughts from 51,000 people in virtual and telephone meetings and polls.
He said that one of the few good things coming out of the pandemic was the province’s public consultation website EngageMB.ca and the feedback it has generated.
On top of spending, Fielding stressed that the budget is also about figuring out how to grow the economy by bringing in new investments, businesses and talents and creating the conditions for new businesses to thrive.
With the province’s COVID-19 pandemic response accounting for $1.2 billion in the last budget, the minister said it showed the importance of the Progressive Conservative government’s approach to reducing costs and striving for a balanced budget before spending escalated.
Financial supports for businesses during the pandemic reached between 30 to 35 per cent of the province’s businesses, he said. Going forward, Fielding said business relief efforts will be less broad and targeted to specific industries.
Though Premier Heather Stefanson expressed doubt in a press conference before last week’s throne speech that the phasing out of education property taxes was happening too quickly for the government to afford, Fielding touted the measure as one way the government is protecting incomes.
After the province’s GDP declined by 4.6 per cent last year, the province’s latest projections are showing a rebound this year with an increase of 3.8 per cent. Wholesale trade is up 7.5 per cent this year with 3.5 per cent increase in employment as two indicators of economic growth.
As Stefanson and her predecessor have stated, Fielding said the most critical issue facing health-care funding is getting the federal government to pay for a greater share of costs.
Though unemployment (5.3 per cent as of November) and the job vacancy rate are high in Manitoba, Fielding touted that Manitoba still has the lowest rates in Canada.
Focusing solely on next year’s budget, Fielding posed several questions to the audience: should more COVID contingency funding be put aside? Should there be COVID support programs for families, individuals, businesses and organizations? How quickly should the budget be balanced? Should the education property tax phase-out be accelerated?
After Fielding’s opening, Chrest was the first representative from a stakeholder group to provide thoughts for the next budget.
Describing it as his Christmas wish list, Chrest asked for the freeze on municipal funding to end, a focus on economic recovery after COVID, to address labour shortages, to bolster emergency services funding to address a shortage of ambulances and paramedics, address the surgical and diagnostic backlog, invest more in training opportunities at institutions like ACC, advance reconciliation, renew funding agreements for the Keystone Centre and Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium and more.
In a conversation between the minister and the mayor after Chrest’s remarks, Fielding asked Chrest for more details on the infrastructure and mental health and addictions issues he’d raised. On the topic of mental health and addiction, Chrest said the city needs help addressing those issues because the city isn’t capable of tackling them alone.
On ambulances, Chrest said the city has enough vehicles and equipment when it comes to transferring patients between Winnipeg and Brandon, but they lack the personnel to satisfy capacity and demand.
Isleifson chimed in to say that he’d spoken with Coun. Bruce Luebke (South Centre) earlier in the day about the Keystone Centre and asked Chrest to explain the economic impact the venue has on the city and the region for Fielding’s benefit and make the case for improved funding.
Chamber of Commerce vice-president Tanya LaBuick told Fielding about the challenges local businesses have gone through during COVID-19 after having to close intermittently over the months and rely on government support to survive.
Beyond calling for support measures for business, actions to generate economic growth and address the labour shortage, LaBuick called for the province to commit to a funding plan for the rural economic development office set up in Brandon after the last provincial election and joined Chrest in asking for renewed funding for the Keystone Centre given the massive economic impact it has on the city.
Both Chrest and LaBuick asked to see the results of the latest sustainability report announced last year by the province. Isleifson said later in the evening that he’s trying to arrange for Municipal Relations Minister Derek Johnson to visit Brandon and tour the Keystone Centre next year and start a dialogue.
On education, the chamber representative asked for the province to find an alternative way to reform the system after Bill 64 was killed earlier in the year. She asked for the province to step up its game with investments outside of Winnipeg.
Brandon Downtown Development Corporation executive director Emeka Egeson said in his presentation that downtown Brandon is under water and threatens to drown if improvements aren’t made.
He listed a lack of investments in infrastructure, homelessness, safety and crime as issues getting out of hand that need to be addressed. Provincial programs targeted at bringing businesses and projects to downtown don’t fit in Brandon, he said, because the minimum amount of funding that businesses are expected to bring is set too high at $10 million.
When a microbrewery wanted to come to downtown Brandon earlier in the year, Egeson said he approached a provincial agricultural funding program to see if funding could be secured to assist in the process but was told that it had already run out of money despite being in place until 2023.
Tracy Williams, executive director of Career Connections in Brandon, spoke about issues relating to people with disabilities, such as a lack of funding and fair pay for agency workers, a lack of staff in residential environments due to low wages, inadequate supports for people with autism outside of Winnipeg and parents having trouble finding child care for kids living with disabilities.
Because of labour shortages, Williams said more and more businesses are looking for people with disabilities to be employees, which in turn increases the demand on her staff. More funding for initiatives like this would go towards addressing those same labour shortages.
“We’re so underfunded, there haven’t been funding increases in years,” she said.
Representing Assiniboine Community College was Derrick Turner, the college’s director of external relations. He said he appreciated the premier’s recent comments pledging support for post-secondary institutions.
Turner’s comments were largely focused on how the college can benefit the agriculture industry, touting private donations to the Prairie Innovation Centre and saying that the college can contribute to heading off a predicted labour shortage.
He said now is the time for the province to commit to equal funding for projects at the centre, which would also go a long way to bringing the federal government on board.
Fielding brought up the province’s plans to increase the number of nursing seats at Manitoba colleges, to which Turner said he hoped to hear more announcements regarding those plans in the future.
Finally, it was time for members of the public to chime in. The first member of the public was Lisa Robson, a faculty member at Brandon University.
She referred to the government’s handling of post-secondary education as austerity and described the process of trying to trim the fat as much as possible to meet demands.
“We’re at the point now where there’s just bone left, there’s no fat,” she said.
Because of this, she said, the university will have to cut programs to the detriment of its students.
She asked Fielding to increase the university’s grants so it can maintain its current programs.
When Fielding summarized what she had said, he brought up the government’s focus on funding job-related skills. In response, Robson said that she teaches in the humanities and wants the province to recognize that what she and her colleagues teach is beneficial in ways that might not always be readily apparent from a higher level.
Later on in the evening, Godin took a turn to describe how important Brandon University’s open enrolment policy is for local students who might not be able to attend other institutions and said it needs support to continue.
Antonio Simard, trustee for the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine was up next, asking for the government to commit to funding increases for ventilation systems, building maintenance and mental health services for students
If the Public Services Sustainability Act is repealed, he expressed a desire for the province to increase compensation for teachers and non-teaching staff as some staff members left at various times while schools were closed.
On ventilation, Fielding said he was in agreement and pointed to his government’s recent announcement that it would spend money to improve systems at many schools in the province.
He also acknowledged that the pandemic will probably not be over when current extra funding runs out next April and that the province will have to see what it can do to fund extra costs for the health-care and education systems.
Ending his remarks, he expressed gratitude for the province’s commitment to build a new francophone school in Brandon.
The next public consultation is tonight at the Blarney Stone Pub in Killarney.
» Twitter: @ColinSlark