Hold Manitoba PST hike referendum, critics urge province

Opponents of the Manitoba government's plan to raise the provincial sales tax are putting pressure on the province to hold a referendum on the issue.

The controversial PST hike has been the subject of intense debate in the legislature so far this week, with Progressive Conservative MLAs hammering Premier Greg Selinger and Finance Minister Stan Struthers over the topic.

Selinger's NDP government wants to raise the PST by one percentage point to eight per cent starting July 1 to cover infrastructure costs including roads, hospitals and flood prevention measures.

The higher PST would be in effect for the next 10 years, according to the province, which plans to change Manitoba's balanced-budget legislation so a referendum would not have to be held.

But the tax hike has been met with a lot of criticism since it was unveiled in last week's provincial budget, with at least one group thinking of launching a legal challenge.

On Tuesday, Tory Leader Brian Pallister reiterated demands for a referendum on raising the PST.

"This has a significant impact on people and their families. I say it's important that they have a vote on it," he told reporters.

Pallister said the government should hold a referendum not just on the PST hike, but on other major decisions, such as whether Manitoba Hydro should expand its international scope.

"It's happening without debate," he said.

But Selinger accused Pallister and the Tories of "dreaming up questions for referendums."

"We're focused on building Manitoba, getting people educated, having protection for people in the face of floods," Selinger told reporters.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce says it supports calls for a PST referendum, as it wants specific details on where the extra revenue would go.

"Let's have a discussion on this process before we just ram it through," said Chuck Davidson, the chamber's vice-president of policy.

Holding a referendum would cost at least $12 million, according to government officials.

In the legislature, some PC MLAs accused Selinger of breaking an election promise from 2011 not to raise the PST, while others suggested that Struthers "grow a backbone."

"I'll put my backbone up against any backbone across there," Struthers responded.

The fiery debate even prompted Speaker Daryl Reid to caution MLAs to "please pick and choose your words very carefully."

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