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Budget approaches: pick low hanging fruit in education

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17Mar

By: Graham Lane
Published: Winnipeg Sun, March 17, 2017

Not too long from now, Manitoba’s PC government will table its provincial budget; the first real budget test for the new finance minister. Until the budget is tabled, there will be considerable hand-wringing as the Premier and his ministers look to ways of cutting costs and, hopefully, increasing the effectiveness of their departments.

The big departments – Health, Education, Justice, Crown Corporations and Social Services – will be under more pressure than others. Ministers responsible for these departments will be particularly hard-pressed to find ways to deliver better services to Manitobans and increase efficiencies while cutting expenses. Mr. Schuler, responsible for crown corporations, has already felt the heat. Every Crown has been directed to reduce their personnel complements, focusing on what the Premier has concluded redundant management.

As for the situation at Manitoba Hydro, it is dire, and options must be developed and examined very closely. The corporation’s board of directors, Minister Schuler and the Premier must decide how to deal with a multi-billion shortfall that threatens taxpayers, ratepayers and Manitoba’s future economy.

Mr. Wishart, the Education minister, however, has a much easier job. Why? Because there are a number of “low-hanging fruit” in education that should be easy picking. Leaving aside for this article the bloated administration found in universities and colleges, the soft working requirements and lives of many profs, and programs continuing with poor attendances and societal interest, I suggest two NDP campaign originated programs that should go the way of the dodo bird and into the trash tray.

In a recent report on higher education in Manitoba (universities and colleges), expert commentator Alex Usher pointed out two Manitoba student aid programs that could be eliminated. If his sage advice was adopted by Mr. Wishart and his boss, that action would provide about $67 million to be put towards cutting back the deficit.

The two programs that should be discontinued are “The Education Amount Tax Credit” and the “Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate.” Hardly anyone knows what these programs do, and there are few, if any, critics that would defend these wasteful programs. They are simple tax rebate schemes ‘designed’ to return tax money to students staying and working in Manitoba after graduation.

Similar tax rebate programs have been closed in Ontario and New Brunswick bringing their governments virtually no political fallout. Likely most Manitobans would react the same way if the similar programs in Manitoban followed their lead. Cutting the programs would better reduce the budget deficit than continue paying students to do what most choose to do anyway. Funding bad programs is not a good idea, as Mr. Wishart presumably can understand.

Eliminating these two programs would provide some good news for Manitoba taxpayers. Even if he took only $50 million back and paid off some deficit while putting the other $17 million into effective programs for colleges and universities, Mr. Wishart would be seen as being a
more effective Minister, a friend to education, and a politician truly concerned about digging out of the government’s deficit trap.

There are many other cutbacks that could occur in the interest of taxpayers without damaging our universities and colleges, the two raised here are but a sample of what could be done.

Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward (manitobaforward.ca).

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