Not mean-spirited

Being a critic of provincial government policies does not imply criticisms have to be mean-spirited, which was made evident during a recent breakfast meeting with Premier Gary Doer hosted by the Manitoba Real Estate Association.

The MREA is part of a coalition, which includes the WinnipegREALTORS® and other groups such as the Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, that has been advocating the removal of education funding from property taxes.

The coalition has been extremely vocal in its advocacy. Among its recent initiatives was an e-mail campaign under the banner. Visitors to the website were encouraged to send an e-mail to the premier and Education Minister Peter Bjornson outlining their displeasure with property tax revenue being used to finance education.

What the MREA and its supporters have long advocated was funding education in the same manner as health care — entirely from general revenues. Spokespersons such as MREA political action committee chair, Lorne Weiss, have told the premier that education is a societal benefit like health care. As well, Weiss has continually told the premier that education has little affiliation to property taxes which should be used to fund services such as garbage collection , sewer and water.

In the past, Weiss, acting on behalf of the coalition which represents about 250,000 people from all walks of life, has made statements such as, “Hundreds of Manitobans we hear from every day, realize that the province cannot continue to fund education on the backs of property owners.”

During the meeting last week at the Hilton Hotel near the airport, Weiss, when introducing the premier, said, “being aggressive doesn’t hurt our relationship.”

In fact, despite the criticism on education funding policy, the premier has for the last three years in a row participated in the MREA breakfast. 

“If you ask Premier Doer, his government is listening,” added Weiss. “Good governments do listen.”

Doer affably acknowledged the persistence of MREA and its member REALTORS® in calling for an end to using property taxes to fund education. 

When speaking to the REALTORS®, Doer used his most potent weapon — his ability  to wow a crowd while never backing down from a challenge.

Doer said the government has listened and has been steadily lowering its share of property taxes.

“When our government was first elected, we campaigned against high education taxes,” he added. “We didn’t say we’d eliminate the taxes (he included corporate and capital taxes) overnight, because we couldn’t afford it. But  the taxes are slowly but surely going down. We have to continue to chip away. 

“We can’t take an axe to it (education taxes), because we have to cut a number of taxes ... We have to work on a number of taxes.

“And, we have to do it by not running a deficit, and we pledged to honour the Filmon government’s balanced budget law.”

The former Premier Gary Filmon government introduced balanced budget legislation when the nation and province were in the midst of successive years of budget deficits. When the Doer government came to power in 1999, the fiscal health of the province had rebounded, a benefit of the past policies of the Filmon government. The NDP also benefited politically from the unpopularity of the deep budget cuts by the Filmon government that helped restore the provincial treasury to a balanced budget position.

Since the NDP came to power, the nation and province have enjoyed an economic boom — tax revenues subsequently significantly increased — that has allowed tax cuts to become part of the agenda. What is now being argued is the depth of the tax cuts and how rapidly the cuts should be implemented.

The Doer government has been more cautious than desired by MREA and the coalition. When the first initiatives to relieve the education tax burden on property owners were released a few years ago, it was agreed by the coalition that the measures were welcomed but not as aggressive as they had called for.

The Doer government first announced an increase in the tax rebate from $250 to $400 — it is now $525 — on property taxes used to fund education, followed by a promise to eliminate its education special levy (ESL) on residential property. Five years later, the ESL has been eliminated at a cost of some $100 million in revenue to the province.

Doer said the benefit of the ESL has been realized by “most people living in Manitoba.”

With MREA and others reminding the government about the need for further progress, new announcements were made by the Doer government.

Chief among them was a school  tax rebate on farmland which incrementally reduces the amount paid by farmers. A rebate of 33 per cent was introduced in 2004, with an increase to 50 per cent in 2005, then 60 per cent in 2006. For 2007, the rebate rose to 65 per cent. The rebates for 2008, 2009, and 2010 are increasing to 70 per cent, 75 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively.

Another recent announcement was that 80 per cent of education funding would come from provincial revenues, not property taxes, within two years. At present, arguably about 72 per cent of education funding is through general revenues.

Weiss also pointed out that the government seemed to have listened to the criticism that school boards have eaten up most of the province’s property tax decreases by increasing their share of the tax burden. In particular, he said the province took a tougher stand by telling school boards to justify their tax increases and keep them within reason.

Yet, Weiss said, the share of taxes levied by school boards has increased and there is still plenty of work to be done to keep them in line.

Of course, the best way for this to be done is to eliminate the funding of education using property taxes altogether, according to MREA and the coalition.

If you ask Weiss, he will tell you the premier has been listening. On the other hand, Weiss still hopes that sometime soon there will be an announcement that property taxes will no  longer be used to fund education. In the meantime, the coalition’s criticism of the government will remain civil and not mean-spirited.