By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has signalled that it will the loosen its purse strings in the provincial budget Tuesday — its last fiscal plan before a provincial election scheduled for Oct. 3.
With the economy recovering from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic and higher transfer payments coming from the federal government, the province is in a position to spend more, Finance Minister Cliff Cullen said Monday.
“That … allows us to make strategic investments in health care, education, social programming and, as you will see tomorrow, more affordability assistance for Manitobans,” Cullen told reporters at a pre-budget news conference.
The opposition parties accused the Tories of trying to win back voters with money after several years of tight fiscal restraint and two years of low polling numbers.
“We’ve seen for the last few months that the PCs have been hosing the province with money in an attempt to try to put out the fires they have created,” Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said.
The budget is expected to contain tax cuts resulting from a review of the province’s competitiveness that was launched last fall. Businesses have complained that taxes such as the payroll levy, which charges employers a percentage of their annual wages above $2 million, stifles growth.
The budget will also contain more aid to people struggling with the rising cost of living, albeit in a different format than a series of cheques the government has mailed to families and individuals in recent months.
“The budget allows us to do some things outside of putting cheques in the mail,” Cullen said.
Manitoba has been running deficits every year since 2009, with the exception of a razor-thin $5-million surplus in 2019. The Tories have promised to balance the budget by 2028 and remain on target to do so, Cullen said.
Cullen has added fiscal room this year due in part to a 19 per cent jump in equalization payments from the federal government. Equalization is a federally funded program that offers poorer provinces money so they can provide services at similar levels to richer ones, and the $577-million increase this year is the biggest Manitoba has seen in recent memory.
The Opposition New Democrats, who have been leading in opinion polls for two years, said any budget commitment to improve health care should not be trusted. Tory support dropped sharply during the pandemic and at one point, dozens of intensive care patients were flown to other provinces because of a bed shortage.
“There’s a lot of reasons to be worried that if we do continue to give this government the benefit of the doubt, they will continue to do what they’ve done over the last seven years, which is to continue to make cuts to the services that Manitobans rely on,” NDP finance critic Adrien Sala said.