Manitoba’s finance minister admits he’d gotten used to the idea of annually balancing the provincial books — that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged any chance to do so.
“It’s certainly something we were proud to accomplish before all of this happened,” Minister Scott Fielding told a virtual event hosted by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce Thursday, a day after he tabled the 2021-22 budget at the legislative assembly.
“But, even with these circumstances and the hits to our economy, we’re committed to having another balanced budget within the next eight years.”
Moments after he announced the fiscal blueprint, Fielding said he started getting questions from constituents about why the Tories decided to cut taxes when the province is set to run high deficits.
“People definitely keep asking about this,” Fielding said. “And I think, to us, tax relief right now makes sense for individuals and businesses to help them save as much as possible.
“Right now is the time to invest money to get through the pandemic. But the budget needs to look at both that and how we can be prepared for the future beyond this.”
Co-sponsored by Rogers Communications Inc., Winnipeg-based 6P Marketing and Manitoba Egg Farmers association, the webinar was a way for Fielding to peddle what’s been described as a “transitional budget” to the business community.
According to the latest projections from the province, Manitoba has seen over $2 billion in deficit spending during the 2020-21 fiscal year, and it anticipates around $1.6 billion in slippage this year.
Estimates for deficits show it’ll be $374 million, $254 million and $209 million, respectively, within the next three years.
“Clearly, this budget is not going to be like any other we’ve seen in Manitoba’s recent history,” noted Peggy May, chairwoman of the Chambers. “That’s why we understand why the focus right now is to protect Manitobans through the ongoing pandemic, and to that end, we see $1.1 billion going towards COVID-19 costs.”
Chuck Davidson, CEO and president for the Chambers of Commerce, asked Fielding what it was like navigating “another pandemic budget.”
“I remember it was your third budget and you were scheduled to speak with us pretty much the day COVID hit Manitoba, so we never got to have that talk last year when 400 people were expected to hear you in-person,” said Davidson.
Fielding said it was most important to prioritize contingency plans and understand the uncertainty of a post-pandemic economy.
“One thing we know about COVID, a year into this, is that we can’t judge it for the present because it really does keep changing,” he said. “We know that it could change with variants and a whole bunch of other things that can happen. So, we’ve built around $300 million in contingency under (unplanned) costs towards COVID-19.
To that end, Fielding said it was important to “hear the voice of Manitobans to make these budget decisions,” mentioning that nearly 51,000 people participated in consultations.
“We value feedback with these things, but it did come back quite mixed,” he said.
Around 44 per cent of participants for government surveys say the province should balance the budget later than 2027, even if it means higher deficits and more provincial debt. Meanwhile, 37 per cent believe government should stick with its plan to balance the books by 2027.
“But at the end of the day, this budget shows our focus is to protect Manitobans. We’ve got a lot of money that’s invested to protect us if a third wave comes to our province.”
The Chambers will host Ralph Eichler, Minister of Economic Development and Jobs, at another stakeholder event in May.
Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press