An overhaul of the education system is going ahead, even as Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government grapples with a pandemic that it says emphasizes the need for tax reductions and a new course to a balanced budget.
In Wednesday’s speech from the throne, Premier Brian Pallister’s team also vowed to spend an additional $1.6 billion on education over the next four years, while gradually dismantling one form of revenue that the education system relies on.
The speech, which lays out the government’s legislative agenda, signalled that Manitoba will follow through on a 2019 campaign promise by phasing out the education property tax, beginning next year.
The government will also eliminate probate fees on estates and remove the provincial sales tax from income tax preparation, as previously promised.
Pallister said he can cut taxes while keeping the government’s finances under control, but said the pandemic means he cannot reduce taxes as much as he would like, referring to an earlier promise to cut the provincial sales tax by one percentage point. That cut was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Manitoba.
“I don’t think it’s achievable in the not-too-distant future,” Pallister told reporters during an embargoed briefing before the throne speech was read.
The government plans to set a course for a “gradual, careful return” to a balanced budget over the next eight years, he said.
Earlier this month, the province celebrated posting a modest surplus in 2019-20 fiscal year, but the government is forecasting a $2.9-billion deficit next year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Less time, money ‘wasted’
In addition to the $1.6-billion education funding boost, a transformation of Manitoba’s education system will improve student outcomes and provide more accountability, the throne speech said.
“We need more resources directed into teaching and learning, and less time and money wasted on school administration and red tape,” said the speech, read in the legislature by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon.
Teachers and principals must not be “distracted by time-consuming bureaucracy,” the speech said.
“And we need parents to be given the chance to be more involved in their children’s education, not less.”
Pallister said a review of Manitoba’s kindergarten to Grade 12 system will be released publicly in the “not-too-distant future,” but he wouldn’t commit to a timeline.
The review has already been completed, but its release was delayed by the coronavirus emergency. The planned reforms shouldn’t be shelved indefinitely, he said.
“We shouldn’t use the pandemic as a reason to stop.”
More immediately, the throne speech signalled that Manitoba will develop a blended strategy to ensure a consistent approach to remote and in-class learning options for every student who needs those options during the pandemic, regardless of where they live.
The speech also promised more health-care spending. The government said it will establish more COVID-19 testing sites and screening capacity, reduce wait times for cataract surgery and joint replacements, and provide more renal dialysis services in Steinbach.
On child care, the province said it would develop a modern system and funding model. The new system will provide greater equity in the supports provided to families, and more choices and flexibility, the speech promised.
The government also plans to create an independent economic development agency to attract investment and international trading opportunities. That agency will examine the value of a venture capital investment fund to help businesses, the province said.
Pallister’s government also promised to put forward legislation to better align post-secondary institutions with market needs. The premier has been criticized for dictating the purpose of post-secondary education.
Private liquor sales pushed
Private retail liquor sales will become “less expensive and more convenient,” the speech said.
The speech also promised legislation to prevent “illegal protests and blockades,” referring to the railway blockades earlier this year. Pallister said police agencies want greater clarity in terms of the rules.
“There’s no way that this is designed to infringe on anyone’s right to lawful protest, but when you extend your own rights in such a manner in a protest that you take away someone else’s rights, then there’s a consequence to that that,” the premier said.
The government reaffirmed some previous commitments, such as a new income support program for people with disabilities, changes to income assistance programs that will instill “greater self-reliance,” and reintroducing legislation to ease restrictions on Sunday and holiday shopping, as well as legislation to create a capital planning region for the Winnipeg metropolitan area.
The province still plans to rejig the Public Utilities Board, which would involve the government temporarily dictating rate changes until multi-year hearings are established. To that end, the government instructed Manitoba Hydro to keep its next rate increase to below three per cent, the speech said.
Throne speech reaction
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government’s strategy lacked measures to help Manitobans cope with the pandemic and spiking COVID-19 numbers.
“How are we going to get a handle on these testing line-ups? How are we going to improve testing capacity? No ideas, no new programs to help get a handle on this,” the Official Opposition leader said.
Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky argued the province’s intention to stay the course in a pandemic will result in more cuts.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont bemoaned the lack of a plan to aid small businesses, and called scrapping the education property tax a “massive giveaway to the richest people in Manitoba.”
Abe Araya, president of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), said the province should ditch the education report, referring to it as “archaic,” since it was devised before the pandemic.