Education funding election issue

As we head into a provincial election on May 22, the three main provincial parties are doing their best to gain public attention with daily announcements on various policy fronts and issues they deem important to Manitobans. One issue that deserves to get more attention is how we intend to fund education. 

In a 2006 poll conducted by Probe Research on behalf of the WinnipegREALTORS® Association and the Manitoba Real Estate Association, eight in 10 Manitobans, or 81 per cent, believe it is important that political parties take clear positions on this issue. Nearly 50 per cent said that it is “very important” that they do so. 

Respondents were asked if political parties should adopt a clear position in the next provincial election on whether public education should be funded through provincial revenues or through local property taxes.   

Those respondents most likely to say “very important” were property owners versus renters, were aged 55 or over (62 per cent versus 35 per cent among those aged 18-34) and were rural Manitobans. The bottom line is Manitobans want this issue to be addressed in the coming election. 

The same poll also revealed six-in-10 Manitobans agreed that funding for Manitoba’s public education 

system should come from the province’s general revenues. Only one-in-10 said funding should continue to come from property taxes (13 per cent) while a similar number suggested a combination of school division and provincial sources (15 per cent).

The efforts of the education finance coalition, whose key partners include the Manitoba Real Estate Association (MREA), the WinnipegREALTORS® Association, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce and the Keystone Agricultural Producers, have brought more attention to this issue this year. 

Lorne Weiss, the chair of MREA’s political action committee, said the aim of the coalition is to have education funded through general revenues in the same way that health care is funded in the province. 

“Manitoba REALTORS®, along with the coalition, are committed to the fact that education is a priority like other core provincial services, and should be funded by all Manitobans because it benefits all Manitobans,” said Weiss. “Using property taxes to fund education does not reflect a homeowner’s income and ability to pay.” 

“Farmers, seniors, families and business owners struggle to keep education adequately funded at the expense of their properties and farms because, in many cases, they are being taxed on debt,” said KAP president David Rolfe.

“Public education is everyone’s responsibility and we’re calling on the province to show leadership and shift education taxes off property so we can all pay fair,” said Ron Cornell, the political action representative of the Brandon Real Estate Board.

“As a commercial REALTOR®, I certainly appreciate that businesses should be paying property taxes for municipal services that relate directly to a property but education taxes are a public service like health care and should be funded the same way it is,” said Wes Schollenberg, president of WinnipegREALTORS®.  

“Our high occupancy costs do nothing but detract from getting out-of-town private investors to buy our 

vacant property and get it into productive use.” 

Of course, the million-dollar question is where will the government find the money to replace the over $700 million it collects from property owners. A good starting point is to eliminate the credit system that has expanded under the current government — $225 million is redistributed back to residential property owners.  

Increasing the property tax credit from $400 to $525 does nothing to reform the education finance system. In 2007, the city is collecting more taxes from property owners to pay for education than it does for municipal services. For example, the Winnipeg School Division set a mill rate this year that is over 10 per cent higher than the city’s.  

Is it any wonder that the City of Winnipeg city council passed a March motion calling on the province to remove the mill rate for the education support levy and the special levy from the city’s property tax bill? 

Education finance coalition members realize education taxes on property cannot be done in one fell swoop. Weiss said the province does have the wherewithal to completely eliminate education funding over a four- or five-year period — it’s a question of making this issue a spending priority and implementing a plan to phase out school propoerty taxes.

The coalition is urging Manitobans to show their support for the campaign. Let the future for Manitobans be one where the government does not see property taxes as an easy method of raising money to pay for a core provincial service.  After all, the education tax is just another capital tax that has nothing to do with ability to pay — it is a subtraction from the asset itself, not from earnings the property generates.