Lorne Weiss, the chair of the Manitoba Real Estate Association’s political action committee, isn’t convinced that Manitoba Education Minister Peter Bjornson is willing to deal with the issue of eliminating all education funding from property taxes.
“We made some headway,” in conversation and in a series of letters exchanged with the minister, said Weiss. “I’m sure we also convinced him of the collective resolve of our coalition, but I’m not convinced that there is a political will on the minister’s part to deal with it.”
The coalition of organizations and citizens groups representing about 250,000 Manitobans, including the MREA and the Winnipeg Real Estate Board, has been lobbying the provincial government to end funding of education through property taxes.
Weiss said it is especially important now to bring the issue before the provincial government because of reassessments across Manitoba that could lead to increased education property taxes. The reassessment comes into effect next year and is based on 2003 property values, which have experienced a significant increase since the previous reassessment which used 1999 property values.
“Our fear is the impact of the new assessment on the education tax next year,” said Weiss.
“In terms of the ability to pay property taxes related to property value, the current market value assessment was introduced in 1990 as part of the assessment reform initiative,” Bjornson told Weiss in an April 18 letter. “It is the system used throughout North America as the basis of the property tax system. In most cases, it results in fair and equitable distribution of taxes.”
The coalition has warned that reassessments are often used by school boards across the province to gain more revenue from property taxes.
Weiss also indicated to the education minister a recent survey provides proof that there exists widespread support for change. The phone survey by Probe Research Inc. and commissioned by the MREA and the WREB found that nearly six in 10 Manitobans agreed that funding education should come from the province’s general revenues rather than through property taxes. Only 19 per cent said funding for education should come from property taxes, while a similar number said funding should come from a combination of the two.
Weiss said in a July 28 letter to the education minister that the survey results are significant in the context of a meeting held two years ago with Finance Minister Greg Selinger.
“At that time, Mr. Selinger was firm that a change in the funding model could not be considered until the diminishing federal transfer payments were addressed,” wrote Weiss, “and it could be demonstrated that there was widespread public support for a change in the way education was funded.
“We believe that the transfer payments shown in the last (2005) provincial budget and this survey have addressed the finance minister’s concerns ...”
Weiss told Bjornson in another letter dated August 10 that shifting the $700-million generated by property taxes for education funding to general revenue “may seem daunting at first glance.
“However, there are a number of sources that could be tapped during the phase out period,” he added.
Weiss indicated that the funding sources could include part of the federal transfer payments presently going into the province’s Rainy Day Fund, a portion of Manitoba Hydro revenues from export sales, from additional revenue associated with economic growth — $1.5 billion over the last five years — and a general re-evaluation of how efficiently government is currently delivering provincial services.
The coalition has also initiated a pamphlet campaign to bring attention to public education funding. Interlake residents were the first Manitobans to receive the pamphlet, called Why Property Tax Should Not Fund Education. In particular, Bjornson’s home riding of Gimli was targeted.
In reply to the pamphlet, Bjornson wrote to Weiss that he wanted to clarify “a few
He said that Manitoba was not alone in funding education from property taxes. “In fact, seven of 10 provinces continue to raise a portion of public school funding requirements directly from property taxes.”
Using a Saskatchewan report from 2003, Bjornson said Manitoba is fourth lowest out of the seven provinces where property taxes directly support school funding. He said the Alberta’s, Saskatchewan’s and Ontario’s percentage of school funding through property taxes is higher than Manitoba’s.
But, Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert has recently said this will change. He has promised that his government will use federal transfer payments to lessen the education tax burden in his province.
Bjornson said he recognizes there are problems inherent in education funding, adding that these problems are being addressed. He mentioned provincial initiatives such as tax credits to low-income seniors, rebates on farmland and a reduction in the residential education support levy, the province’s own school property tax.
Weiss said the coalition believes all these measures do not go far enough to bring property tax relief to Manitobans. He said tax relief will only come when school funding through property taxes is completely eliminated.
“Education is a societal benefit like health care and thus it should be funded like health care through general revenues,” he added.
Weiss also told the minister that the coalition is prepared to redo its survey in September to demonstrate the extent of support that now exists throughout the province for removing education funding from property taxes.