Analysis

Provincial budget does no re-election favours for Winnipeg's mayor

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Finance Minister Cameron Friesen did Brian Bowman absolutely zero favours with a provincial budget that ignored the only two tangible requests made by Winnipeg's mayor.

Brian Bowman is free to argue Winnipeg ought to matter more, but he's unlikely to convince the premier

The provincial budget ignored the two tangible requests made by Winnipeg's mayor. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

If Brian Bowman​ wins a second term as mayor, there are at least two people he won't thank when the balloons and confetti descend upon his podium.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Finance Minister Cameron Friesen did Bowman absolutely zero favours with a provincial budget that ignored the only two tangible requests made by Winnipeg's mayor.

For months, Bowman has been pleading for the province to sign on to a federal-funding request that could allow Winnipeg to access $182 million in road renewal money.

The federal funding window expires at the end of the month. The mayor has tried to sell the request on the basis the province won't have to spend any more money on Winnipeg's roads in the coming year than it did last year.

Unfortunately for Bowman, the 2018-19 provincial budget unveiled by Pallister and Friesen on Monday makes no mention of this funding.

Mayor Brian Bowman went to the Manitoba Legislature on budget day to learn whether the province would grant his funding wishes. Things didn't turn out the way he had hoped. 1:26

What it does include is a 30 per cent cut to the provincial highways program, which amounts to a $152-million cut in capital spending on roads.

That matters to Winnipeg because it demonstrates this provincial government doesn't share Ottawa's passion for Keynesian economics on steroids — that is, high levels of infrastructure spending on a permanent basis, rather than only for a little while to stimulate the economy.

On Monday, Friesen made this clear when he said the previous NDP government had no economic rationale for its infrastructure spending.

"It just went up in an unsustainable way. In the time since we took government, we realized there really was no fundamental, comprehensive plan for that infrastructure amount," he said. "So clearly, over time, we have to turn it back."

Since Manitoba plans to spend less on its own highways, Bowman would be naive to expect the province to offer Winnipeg the same level of funding for road renewals as it received last year. This is simple logic.

'Follow our lead' on spending: Bowman

The mayor had a stronger basis for his second big request — the reinstatement of a provincial deal to cover half of Winnipeg Transit's operating costs that are not covered by bus fares.

The creation of a carbon tax suggests Manitoba is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One tangible way to to do that is to improve public transit to a level where more Winnipeggers actually get out of their cars and take the bus instead.

But the province has no interest in supporting Winnipeg Transit, aside from a pledge to replace some diesel buses with electric vehicles.

Friesen, however, dismissed the suggestion it's illogical to try to reduce bus emissions in a budget that doesn't offer Winnipeg Transit enough money to retain existing service levels.

To the finance minister, how much money Winnipeg spends on transit is no different than any other funding decision the city makes with a pot of provincial money that's been frozen at 2016 levels.

"We are asking the City of Winnipeg to do what we as a province are doing, and that is to manage well. The City of Winnipeg has choices to make about its expenditures," Friesen said.

That was nothing short of a provocation to the mayor, given that the City of Winnipeg is required to balance its budget every year — unlike the province.

"I've balanced four budgets," Bowman said with a smile on his face.

"Our expenditure growth in this year's budget is 1.2 per cent. The province is more than double our expenditure growth, so I think we have a lot we can teach the province, if they follow our lead."

Tory strategy clear

This exchange between the mayor and the finance minister exemplifies the provincial funding strategy for not just Winnipeg, but most of Manitoba's municipalities, school boards, Crown corporations and regional health authorities.

The province provides flat funding, which amounts to a de facto cut when you factor in inflationary cost increases. That leaves the tough task of deciding precisely what to cut to the other entities, including city hall in Winnipeg.

"We're not going to drill down in every line," said Friesen, freely admitting the obvious.

Clearly, Winnipeg's mayor ought not to expect any help from Pallister and Friesen. But the mayor also should not expect the province to simply roll over and do his bidding because Winnipeg is the most populous place in the province.

Every modern mayor has tried to make the argument Winnipeg ought to matter more because a majority of Manitobans calls the city home. And every modern mayor has found voters could not care less.

When Winnipeggers are annoyed with roads and transit, they direct that ire toward the mayor, not the premier or finance minister.

That's why Pallister and Friesen won't be the first people Bowman thanks on election night — assuming he runs again and wins.