Manitoba 2014 budget tackles jobs, education and poverty
Province invests $5.5 billion in infrastructure, puts remaining focus on students, middle class
There were few surprises in Manitoba's Thursday release of the provincial budget, with the big winners being students, people looking for work and those living below the poverty line.
The other big area of spending for the province was infrastructure. Officials had already revealed on Wednesday that $5.5 billion was slated for infrastructure projects across the province.
But the budget revealed few new details of how that money would be spent on Thursday. Instead, it focused on education, child care and low-income earners.
"In this budget, I hope what was guiding me, was what can we do to make life a little bit better, a little bit easier for families," said Manitoba's Finance Minister Jennifer Howard.
Howard's first budget as finance minister laid a framework for expanding the province's workforce with 75,000 new jobs and offering more training opportunities for young people.
The province's plans include a $5,000 tax credit for employers who take on apprentices and expanding high-school apprenticeship programs as well as offering a $1,000 bursary for apprentices.
"We want our kids to leave high school with a good sense of where they want to go and how they're going to get there," said Howard.
The budget also laid out plans for expanding summer job opportunities for university students.
As for the province's universities, they'll see another 2.5 per cent increase in funding this year, which was on par with what was expected and what was allotted last year. Colleges will get a two per cent increase.
Senior school tax rebate
In the 2014 budget, the province announced the amount of a school tax rebate for seniors. The rebate was first announced in the 2013 budget, but specifics were not made available until this year. The rebate will be worth $235 per year and become available this year.
The province is also rolling the Council on Post-Second Education, which oversees universities and colleges, into the province's department of education — a move officials say will make it easier for students to transfer credits between institutions.
That move was applauded by University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy, but he did say he was disappointed the university continues to receive less than the University of Manitoba and Brandon University.
As for the province's youngest students, the budget called for a $1.2 billion investment in classrooms to decrease class sizes for the youngest grades. Part of that will be salaries for 50 new teachers and $1 million for teaching basic skills like reading, writing and math.
Social assistance rental allowance to spike
After receiving harsh criticism from the Manitoba Tories over the issue, the NDP announced an increased to rent allowance for people on social assistance.
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For years, the rental allowance was stagnant while the cost of renting an apartment in Manitoba rose.
Now, the province plans to increase that amount to 75 per cent of the average cost of renting a space (median market value) over the next several years.
The province did not provide a timeline for when that increase would be complete though, and this year, the amount is expected to go up by about $50 with a forecast cost of about $20 million to the province.
Minimum wage will also go up again this year, but the province remained mum on when that would happen or exactly what amount it would go up by.
"The NDP is concerned that its image might be toxic right now due to the PST increase last year," said Christopher Adams, a political analyst and rector with St. Paul's College. "We know for polling data we've seen over the past six months we know the NDP is lagging not just in rural Manitoba but in Winnipeg."
More child care spots, higher worker wages
Adams said many of the moves in this year's budget are made to appeal to middle-class and female voters, where support has been lagging in recent months.
"The NDP has historically been very popular among women," he said. "But the gender difference has flattened out ... women are no more inclined to vote for the NDP anymore than men."
[The NDP] want to win back the middle class women in Winnipeg- Political analyst Chris Adams
Adams said support from women voters began to wane two years ago when new taxes were announced on a variety of services women use — including a tax on hair cuts. That only continued when PST rose to eight per cent.
"They want to win back the middle class women [vote] in Winnipeg," said Adams.
Part of that is a $5.5 million investment in child care, which will see new spaces and an effort to increase wages for child care workers. The move is aimed at solving a problem plaguing many child care centres -- hiring and retaining qualified staff.
The goal is to increase spaces by attracting more people to work in the field.
Cathy Gardiner of Learning and Growing Daycare in Winnipeg said cash for wages is exactly what the industry needs.
“Better wages are going to attract more people to the field,” she said. “Recruitment and retention has been very, very difficult and on ongoing challenge for us.”
Gardiner said in order for it to have an impact, the roll out will have translate to actual wage increases for her workers.
Adams said these are the types of investments middle class and female voters will be looking for.
"When we look at things like expanded health care spaces ... and increased funding for day care centres in many ways this plays to middle class families, especially women voters," said Adams.
Health care spending
The province remained vague on new investments in health care this year but did promise more doctors, nurses and quick care clinics.
St. Vital and Seven Oaks are each slated to get one of those clinics, while a new ACCESS centre is planned for Grace Hospital.
Swan River and Steinbach will also get new clinics, while northern Manitoba is expected to get new cancer clinics.
"We've done some projects that we know have saved us money," said Howard, pointing to the amalgamation of regional health authorities and finding savings on drug costs.
But, Howard said, "It is not about diminishing services for Manitobans."
Infrastructure, Manitoba Hydro and flooding
The province announced much of its plans to spend $5.5 billion on infrastructure over the next five years on Wednesday, and expanded little on those plans in Thursday's budget.
They reiterated plans to upgrade the Perimeter Highway and Highway 59 interchange, upgrade Highway 75 to flood standards and pave Highway 12, which will be a boon for residents in Ste. Anne and Steinbach.
Snow tire loans
The province also announced a new Manitoba Public Insurance program to offer low-cost loans on snow tires. The specifics of how that program would work were not released, however.
Officials also reiterated plans to spend $250 million within the City of Winnipeg.
Some of the places that will benefit from that $250 million investments are Pembina Highway, Route 90 and the roads around Polo Park.
Few new announcements were made on flood mitigation, but the province said they are continuing with plans to create a new outlet on Lake Manitoba, upgrade the Portage Diversion and create permanent dikes in many rural communities.
New waste water plants will also be built in Virden, Portage la Prairie and Selkirk.
Meanwhile, revenues from Manitoba Hydro continued to decrease this year, with revenues forecast to be $62 million, down from $72 million last year.
On track to balance books by 2016
Officials have long been promising to balance the books by 2016, and this year's budget confirmed the province is on track to achieve that.
After running a deficit for six consecutive years, the province projects this year's deficit will be $357 million and hope to shrink it to $218 million in the next budget.
By 2016, they're hoping to have a surplus of about $39 million.
Once you get elected, the next day is the launch of the next campaign- Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard
But the province isn't done dipping into its fiscal stabilization fund, better known as the rainy day fund. In 2009, the fund sat at $807 million.
For the last six years, the province has slowly chipped away at that. This year, another $55 million, was taken out, bringing the fund's total to $220 million.
"Manitobans love a good deal so we did really challenge ourselves to find ways to manage the revenue that we had," said Howard.
There's no word on if the province plans to restore that fund if the books are balanced in 2016. One thing Howard did promise was not to make big cuts to core services between now and then.
"I think the path forward is achievable," said Howard. "But we're not going to do things like cut deeply into services or forego fighting a flood."
Adams added the timing of the eventual deficit elimination falls in line with the next election.
"Right now, we're looking at the NDP looking to have a balanced budget just in time for a spring 2016 election," said Adams.
When asked if this was the start of the NDP's next campaign, Howard said the party has never stopped.
"The truth is, and this will sound like a cliche, once you get elected, the next day is the launch of the next campaign," said Howard.
"Every day you try to think about what your constituents would want you to do."