By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
Manitobans may see some tax relief, financial help with inflation and money for addiction treatment before the provincial election slated for Oct. 3.
What they are unlikely to see is any more movement by the province in its dispute with the federal government over carbon pricing.
Premier Heather Stefanson discussed her plans in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday and said she is confident of her party’s chances for re-election despite consistent low polling numbers.
“I think we’ve got momentum moving in the right direction. I’m not sure that those (poll) numbers are right,” Stefanson said, pointing to two byelection wins this year in which the Tories held on to traditional seats, albeit by narrow margins.
The Tories have already hinted at more help for people facing the rising cost of living, similar to cheques that were mailed out last year to low-income seniors and low- and middle-income families.
The government is also preparing a budget that will incorporate the looming recommendations of a group struck last year to make Manitoba more competitive with its neighbours. Business groups have said some taxes such as the Health and Post Secondary Education Levy, which charges employers a percentage of their payroll, put the province at a disadvantage compared to its neighbours.
A cut to the provincial sales tax is not out of the realm of possibilities. Stefanson’s predecessor, Brian Pallister, cut the tax by one percentage point in 2019. He had promised another one-point reduction, but shelved the idea when the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the province’s finances.
“We’re going to look at what (the review group’s) recommendations are that will make us the most competitive across the country,” Stefanson said. “If they recommend that the PST is the one, we’ll look at that, but we’ll see what comes out of that.”
The government also plans to boost funding for mental health services and addiction treatment to address homelessness and overdoses, following a promise in the November throne speech to add or support up to 1,000 treatment spaces. The Tories continue, however, to reject calls for a safe-consumption site.
Opinion polls since the second wave of the pandemic have suggested the Tories are trailing the Opposition New Democrats, especially in Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are. Even after Stefanson replaced Pallister in the fall of 2021, the numbers remained steady as health-care backlogs continued to swell.
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, has said the public mood is one of frustration and anger, and the Tories will be hard-pressed to turn things around before the election.
Stefanson will likely have more money to spend in her pre-election budget. Federal equalization payments to Manitoba are forecast to jump this year by 19 per cent, or $577 million. Stefanson said the spring budget will be a mix of increased health spending, including hospital upgrades, and measures to boost the economy
More immediately, Stefanson said she will shuffle her cabinet sometime “in the next few weeks to a month” following recent announcements by several caucus members that they will not seek re-election.
One idea Stefanson appears to have shelved is a fight against carbon pricing imposed by the federal government. Ottawa has instituted a rising “backstop” price in Manitoba and other provinces that have not enacted their own systems that meet federal minimum requirements.
Last year, Stefanson said she hoped to work collaboratively with Ottawa and reach a compromise. Stefanson said Wednesday there’s been no movement and other items, such as federal transfer payments for health care, are taking priority.
“I think there’s other things that we’ll focus on,” she said. “I mean, health care has got to be the No. 1 issue that we can focus on with them right now.”