Not fooled by piece-meal tax break, says Weiss: education tax problem won’t go away that easily

The provincial government is starting to realize there’s a real problem with funding education through property taxes, but it’s going about changing the system in the wrong way, according to Manitoba Real Estate Association political action committee chair Lorne Weiss.

In Monday’s throne speech, the Premier Gary Doer government announced that it was lowering its school taxes on farmland by 33 per cent this year with the reduction rising to 50 per cent in 2005.

The government said the tax relief will save farmers $13 million this year.

“It’s a token gift. They’re going about the problem of education funding on a piece-meal basis,” said Weiss. “We want a total removal of education funding from property taxes.”

In a press release, PC Leader Leader Stuart Murray called the announcement “an insult to every farm family struggling through the BSE crisis. The Doer government needs to remove education tax completely from residential property and farmland, and commit towards funding education 100 per cent.”

Weiss also feels the NDP’s reduction will not fool the agricultural community into believing true reform of the education funding system doesn’t have to take place.

“If the government felt they were on track (reforming the education funding system), they would never have thrown that bone to the agricultural producers,” he added.

“And, they’re only removing the taxes from farmland not the farm buildings where the bulk of taxes are collected.”

Weiss said he has been in contact with farm organizations since the announcement, who have joined the MREA and the Winnipeg Real Estate Board in a coalition to lobby for removal of education funding from property taxes.

Weiss said he would announce all the participants in the coalition following a meeting later in the month. 

“We’re waiting to hear from other groups, but we’re at the point that the government will have to listen to us.”

For its part, the province said the reduction is designed to give producers and the rural economy a break in a year of BSE and other challenges. Intergovernmental Affairs and Trade Minister Scott Smith said in a press release that “many farmland owners have indicated that the reduction of education taxes is a priority.”

The province also announced it is contemplating education tax relief for the business community. The province collects $117 million a year in education taxes from businesses.

“They’re not giving enough to everybody to keep them happy,” said Weiss. “We’re (the coalition) satisfied that the government’s piece-meal approach will not increase their support for their way of addressing the problem.”

The province has already started a five-year plan to reduce its share of residential education property taxes, increased the education tax credit from $250 to $400, and upped the tax credit for seniors from $400 to $800.

All these measures address only the province’s share of education taxes, not the property taxes levied by school boards. School boards across the province have consistently increased their share of property taxes every time the province reduces its portion. Education taxes have now reached roughly 50 per cent of the total tax bill for Winnipeg homeowners. 

“When they reduce the education support levy (the provincial portion), they’re forcing the school divisions to do their dirty work for them,” said Weiss. “They’re washing their hands of the problem and are blaming school boards for raising taxes.”

Earlier, directors of the WREB told Education Minister Peter Bjornson that they are not seeking a change in the amount of education funding, but a shift in taxation off property. The WREB is asking the province to fund education in the same way as health care from general revenues.

“What we have to convince the province is that it’s a shift in taxation and not a tax grab,” said Weiss.

“If it’s such a good model, why don’t they fund health care that way?” he asked.

“If they don’t find another way to feed this dog (education property taxes),” said MREA president Debbie Goodfellow, “it’s not going to go away — it’s simply going to get meaner.”