For all the talk of Budget 2017 as a course correction in Manitoba’s fiscal trajectory – reshaping government and making hard financial choices – the first full budget by the new provincial government is largely status quo. An exercise in Manitoba finding its bearings. Yet, bolder action was more than warranted, it was imperative.
There are certainly positive measures to be lauded. Indexing personal income tax brackets and basic personal exemptions is a simple but powerful step in the right direction. Aggressively cutting outdated and ineffective red tape without costing taxpayers a dime likewise shows a government that’s listening. After years of excessive, runaway growth in government spending, reigning in spending to 2.1% annually is no small feat.
But urgency in reducing Manitoba’s deficit is disconcertingly absent in this budget. Our provincial debt will climb again this year, with annual debt servicing fees at approximately one billion dollars.
One billion dollars: that’s roughly the annual operating budget of the City of Winnipeg. You could build two new Winnipeg international airports every year for a billion dollars. And each year Manitoba pays more to cover just the interest with fading hope of actually paying down the principal.
That’s not to say The Winnipeg Chamber believes radical cuts are called for, any more than we back gross largesse to spur economic activity. The current government inherited a financial morass after years of overspending and it’ll take both prudent trims and strategic investments to fix.
More, it needs a reinvention of how government delivers services if Manitobans are ever going to get the savings and the outcomes they deserve. Those innovations and efficiencies are what’s missing in this budget. They’re hinted at. There’s signs they’re coming, particularly in highlights of the Financial Performance Review. But substantive action hasn’t been taken in a budget that cries out for it.
What is there in black and white is a troubling cut to a department and its partner organizations that support our economy’s evolution. It’s not certain where the $16 million savings from Growth, Enterprise and Trade (budget to budget) will come from, but supported organizations such as World Trade Centre Winnipeg are the ones who add fuel to our province’s engine. We, and the organizations who count on these partners, wait to hear their fate.
We’ll have to wait on a tax review also, it seems. Minister Friesen is absolutely correct to take on our confusing, inefficient patchwork tax credit system. But Budget 2017 misses an opportunity to launch a holistic review of our entire tax ecosystem. A thoroughly study of where our taxes and credits overlap hasn’t been done since 1999 and would give valuable information on future fiscal policy.
On social media following lock up, we called Budget 2017 uninspiring given its ‘wait and see’ tone. We’re waiting to see how the government will innovate around public service delivery. We’re waiting for a strategy that will grow the economy beyond its usual stroll. We’re waiting for a deficit reduction plan that sees possible interest rate hikes, expected trade turbulence with America and health care cost pressures for what they are: urgent incentives for action. At one billion dollars a year, can Manitobans truly afford to wait around?