WINNIPEG – Manitoba’s Opposition Progressive Conservatives ended their filibuster of a tax bill Thursday night, allowing the NDP government to move closer to raising the provincial sales tax one percentage point to eight per cent.
Tory house leader Kelvin Goertzen had been chewing up the clock by speaking for an hour or more after Question Period each day until the legislature’s 5 p.m. closing time.
He relented after the government agreed to structure public hearings on the tax hike so as to ensure presenters know exactly when they will have a chance to speak.
Goertzen told the legislature the Tories were standing up for taxpayers who were caught by surprise in April when the government announced it would raise the sales tax as of July 1.
“We are struggling for … Manitobans, the Manitobans who call us, who email, who phone, who write letters to the editor, who realize that this is unjust and unnecessary,” Goertzen said as he wrapped up his speech.
NDP house leader Jennifer Howard said the end of the filibuster means the provincial budget, as well as more than 40 bills dealing with everything from disability rights to bullying in schools, can now work their way toward passage.
“I think one of the unfortunate things about this session is that there’s lots of really good legislation that isn’t getting the kind of profile that it deserves,” she said.
The government has faced strong criticism of its planned tax hike for two reasons. For one, the NDP indicated prior to the 2011 election it would not raise taxes. Secondly, the province’s balanced budget law requires the government to hold a referendum before raising the sales tax. Bill 20 simultaneously raises the tax and suspends the need for a referendum.
Finance Minister Stan Struthers has repeatedly said the tax hike is needed to fund infrastructure projects and maintain front-line services in the face of a sluggish economy.
The opposition filibuster means the government is now in a strange position of gathering public input on the tax hike after it takes effect. Manitoba is one of the few provinces with mandatory public hearings on all bills, and the Tories’ delay tactics mean most of the public hearings will be held after July 1.
Under the deal reached Thursday by the Tories and New Democrats, public hearings on Bill 20 will start the evening of June 27, resume July 2 and continue all that week.
The deal also changes the current format, under which people wanting to talk to the bill must show up each night and wait several hours to speak. Sometimes, time runs out and they are told to come back the next day. The new agreement will set a firm schedule of 30 presenters per night. Some 200 people have already signed up to make presentations, which are limited to 10 minutes each, and will be notified of their turn.
As for Goertzen, he’s not ruling out another filibuster when the pubic hearings end and the bill returns to the legislature for final approval.
“All of those options still remain for us.”