Mayor picks off easy targets as pre-election challenges grow

Officially, the campaign period for Winnipeg mayoral candidates is only six months long. Yet it feels like an election is already underway, as Mayor Brian Bowman tries to knock off 2014 campaign promises as if they were bowling pins.

The next few months will be tough for Brian Bowman. Hence the desire for easy victories

Mayor Brian Bowman faces a tough 2018 budget season and also must figure out how to sell spending millions on reopening Portage and Main (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Officially, the campaign period for Winnipeg mayoral candidates is only six months long.

Yet it feels like an election is already underway, as Mayor Brian Bowman tries to knock off 2014 campaign promises as if they were wobbly bowling pins.

Placing free WiFi on buses may sound like a luxury in an era of declining provincial transit funding, but that's what Bowman promised in 2014 and it appears nothing will stop him from being able to say he completed this task.

Not even Winnipeg Transit, which expressed little support for WiFi as a priority last year. It also won't be stopped by unamused transit passengers who are far more likely to care more about reliable bus service than they would about a $300,000 pilot project that will place WiFi on up to 12 of Winnipeg's 565 buses in 2018.
Free WiFi will be offered on up to 12 of Winnipeg's 565 buses in 2018. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Compared to the millions transit won't receive from the province next year due to the Progressive Conservative government's decision to end a long-standing agreement to cover half of Winnipeg Transit's costs, $300,000 doesn't sound like a heck of a lot of cash.

It also comes from a pot of money that doesn't belong to transit. The money was left over, either strategically or by happenstance, from a $1-million kitty devoted to new technology in 2016.

Normally, council's innovation committee decides how to spend this money. Bowman pre-empted that decision by issuing a press release about his support for the plan.

To members of EPC + 2, the unofficial governing party at city council, that was a clear message to vote in favour of the WiFi pilot project.

The mayor was also busy this month proposing a cooling-off period for departing elected officials and a new rule that would require sitting members of council to declare any gift, no matter how small. 

This is part of Bowman's effort to check off another his 2014 campaign-promise boxes. In this case, it's his vow to make city hall more open and transparent.

Easy wins, but effective?

Setting aside the ludicrous bureaucracy that would result from the itemization of every cup of coffee or piece of pastry consumed by councillors on the community-club circuit, these new measures would be relatively easy to enact.

But the effect may be as negligible as the efficacy of the city's new voluntary lobbyist registry, which has fewer names on it than the list of white NHL players who've gone public with their disdain for Donald Trump.

These easy promises are important for Bowman to knock off, because he faces a much more difficult task of fulfilling more complex pledges as he enters his final year in office. 

Chief among them is limiting Winnipeg's property-tax hike next year to 2.33 per cent, as he promised to do every year of his first term.

Bowman has said he hopes to see council approve next year's budget this December. That means city finance officials, council finance chair Scott Gillingham and the rest of Bowman's budget committee, have only two months left to put together a 2018 spending plan that will not enrage voters heading into an election year.

It's no secret Winnipeg faced serious revenue problems even before Premier Brian Pallister decided to reduce the flow of provincial funding for transit, the police helicopter and several other budget line-items that grow every year.

It's also no secret the city has already raided all the reserves it had left to backfill the budget, including its rainy-day fund, which is supposed to be sacrosanct.

Bowman has already committed to maintaining the 2.33-per-cent limit on the property-tax hike. That means next year's budget will feature another big frontage-levy hike or another widespread round of service cuts — and quite possibly, both.

The mayor doesn't have the luxury of disguising those cuts before election day, thanks to the Oct. 24, 2018 vote. Summer is when service cuts become most apparent, as weedy boulevards and dying elms illustrate so vividly.

It will also be difficult for the mayor to announce new major infrastructure projects in the 2018 budget. The city is close to its own self-imposed borrowing limit and is under pressure to reduce the cash it spends directly on capital projects in favour of increasing the money it spends on services.

Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians since 1979. Bowman has pledged to open it. (Gary Solilak/CBC)
That also makes it highly difficult for the mayor to fulfil a major pledge he made after the election: reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians.

That will come at a cost, most likely in the tens of millions, because reopening Winnipeg's most famous intersection involves a lot more than just tearing down barricades.

Those barricades are connected to subterranean infrastructure. Changes to motor-vehicle traffic, the flow of transit buses and pedestrians must be made to accommodate a downtown connection that will link the existing Southwest Transitway to the future East Transitway to Transcona.

As well, Portage and Main property owners will be enraged if the city does not spend money improving the intersection above the ground, especially after the city and province provided tax incentives to True North Square, a rival development.

No-win decision, but election's another story

Angering those property owners comes with a serious consequence: unrealized property-tax revenue that comes from status-quo downtown development.

For Bowman, Portage and Main could wind up being a no-win decision, politically. Same with the 2018 budget.

North Kildonan Coun. Browaty has been a vocal opponent of opening Portage and Main, but it would be difficult for him to open a path to the mayor's office. (Gary Solilak/CBC)
The good news is no one, so far, is running against this mayor. The only path to victory for a right-of-centre populist such as North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty would be the appearance of a left-of-centre candidate who could siphon off some of the progressives who supported Bowman in 2014.

In Winnipeg, incumbent mayors are almost invincible. The last one to go down to defeat was George Sharpe, in 1956.

In other words, Bowman could sacrifice live kittens at Portage and Main and still get elected next year. That doesn't mean the next few months will be easy for the mayor.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.