The Manitoba government’s proposed hike in the Provincial Sales Tax would garner more support if the NDP held a referendum and put the money raised by a tax increase directly into the coffers of local municipalities, according to participants in a debate last night at the Winnipeg Free Press Cafe.
A joint Community News Commons / Winnipeg Free Press event, moderated by columnist Dan Lett, brought four newsmakers together to discuss this contentious issue. Manitoba’s Infrastructure Minister, Steve Ashton, was joined by Jim Carr, founding president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, Earl Porter, mayor of Portage La Prairie, and Shannon Martin, PC candidate in the riding of Morris.
Focussed and fast paced, the debate lasted just over an hour, and keyed in on several points, some which Mr. Ashton was unable, or unwilling, to clarify.
Ashton’s opening answer would be his most direct statement of the evening, where he defended the proposed PST tax hike, from 7% to 8%, by claiming the government needs the increase in order to fund the flood fight, support growing communities and fix crumbling infrastructure.
“It was the toughest decision we had to make to get the budget balanced,” Ashton said. He added that the fiscal pressures the government is under make it necessary to have an increased PST for a limited time – the next ten years.
“If you’re serious about economic growth and infrastructure, then you need the cash to fund it,” Ashton said.
Jim Carr, who sat as a Liberal MLA in the Manitoba Legislature from 1988 to 1991, and has been with the non-partisan Business Council since 1998, said the problem of needing more revenue is caused by the lack of a serious discussion in Canada about which governments should be charging for specific services.
Carr said that when he was in the Legislature, the Manitoba Liberal Party suggested a coordinated tax approach from all levels of government – municipal, provincial and federal. “The NDP Government and the Opposition Tories rejected this,” he said.
“The NDP has created a hole for themselves and an economic environment that can’t fund infrastructure,” added Carr.
Earl Porter, Mayor of Portage la Prairie, said he supports a PST increase but completely rejects what he describes as a bureaucratic process that prevents municipalities from accessing monies raised by a tax hike.
“The problem is that when we go to get infrastructure monies, we have to apply every year for it and we are often rejected and left out of the process,” said Porter. He said, revenues generated by any tax increase need to be turned over to the municipalities.
Recently nominated PC candidate, Shannon Martin, said the Selinger government must take a hard look at where the money is going before increasing the PST.
“They’re spending 90 million dollars more on debt servicing,” Martin said. “Where are they finding that money?”
Both Carr and Porter said that while they support an increase in the PST, they are troubled by the government’s refusal to hold a referendum and by the process set up to transfer funds to municipalities.
Ashton admitted, “Others don’t support this hike in the PST because of the way it’s being done and that’s a legit debate.”
When moderator Dan Lett asked Mr. Ashton whether his government ever considered holding a referendum, the minister did not give a clear answer. He pointed out that the Act in question allows the government to choose not to hold a referendum if certain criteria are met.
Mayor Porter said that by not holding a referendum, the government loses credibility. He added that they could’ve sold a hike in the PST if they would’ve brought it to a vote.
“They should respect democracy,” added Martin.
When asked what his single best argument for not holding a referendum, Ashton said it was time for a decision and they couldn’t wait because the revenue is desperately needed. “We can’t commit to flood protection now if we don’t have the revenue,” he said.
Portage mayor Earl Porter retorted that it’s impossible for his community to make long term plans about infrastructure because they don’t know how much, if any, money they will get from the province from one year to the next.
“While you guys argue, our cities are crumbling,” said Porter. “Give us the money to fix our infrastructure.”
When Dan Lett tried to pin down Mr. Ashton on where the money is being spent, the minister was short on specifics as to what the 280 million in revenue from the PST hike will go towards. “Details will be forthcoming,” he said.
Carr, Porter and Martin pressed Ashton to be more transparent and to start spending money on fixing infrastructure in rural communities.
For his part, Minister Ashton had the last word, suggesting his government will be judged on things other than the PST, like their “massive re-investment in infrastructure.”
The debate was the last practicum in the CNC spring worksop series that trains citizen journalists in all aspects of creating multi-media stories for publication on the public media website Community News Commons (www.cncwpg.org).
All photos by Noah Erenberg