On March 19th, the Manitoba government unveiled their budget for the next fiscal year after the Manitoba NDP had initially blocked the release of the budget by eight days. This is the first budget of the provincial Progressive Conservative’s new mandate.
During the 2020 budget consultation process, the province spoke with more than 18,000 Manitobans; it’s upon this research that the government stakes its confidence that this budget is leading Manitoba in the right direction. Finance Minister Scott Fielding stated that their fiscal plan focuses on the issues that matter to Manitobans by:
- Providing better services;
- Protecting our environment;
- Making our communities stronger and safer;
- Making life more affordable; and
- Building a better, brighter future for all Manitobans and their families.
With an eye on human rights issues in the province, below are five takeaways from the 2020 Manitoba budget.
1. Opposition to Budget Cuts
In some aspects, the budget presents an optimistic path for Manitobans, such as actively preparing for the after-effects of COVID-19, supplying transit assistance for low-income riders and providing a heftier budget towards services working towards ending gender-based violence in the province. However, there are concerns regarding some of the many proposed cuts. The budget was critiqued several times since the budget’s overview was released in late October. Among those opposed were advocates who spent weeks leading up to the budget release protesting issues the budget was proposed to make cuts to.
On January 20th, protesters rallied at City Hall to demand funding for community services in the province. Tens of bathing-suit clad protesters from the Budget for All coalition brought along pool noodles to protest cuts to community services such as the city’s aquatic programs and facilities.
The protests continued into February, as a community group called Millennium for All met at the Millennium library several times to oppose the security changes and proposed cuts. In February 2019, the library introduced an airport-style security screening process for those entering the facility. This initiative prompted numerous demonstrations throughout the year, as some felt this was targeted towards people experiencing homelessness.
The Budget for All coalition also opted for hockey sticks rather than picket signs at a rally in front of True North Square, hoping this would draw attention to the proposed cuts of almost half of the recreation centres, arenas and community services.
2. Transit U-Pass Tweaked, but Not Slashed
The U-Pass is a universal transit pass which provides unlimited access to Winnipeg’s transit services for full-time students at a reduced rate. In the initial budget release, the U-Pass was expected to end, which raised outrage among Winnipeggers, especially students. In a budget amendment, the renewal of the U-Pass program at a 50% discount effective this year was given the sign of approval. “We’ve heard students loud and clear, and we’ve found a way to save the U-PASS at a slightly reduced discount.” stated Mayor Bowman in the budget’s release. The transportation sector in Manitoba is the province’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 39% of the province’s total emissions. It remains very problematic that the budget claims to protect our environment yet is making the transit systems less assessable in Manitoba.
An unlimited transit pass also has numerous benefits for students for universities as a whole: it raises student attendance and decreases vehicular congestion and air pollution. As Winnipeg universities seek to become more environmental-conscious, an unlimited transit pass aligns with this goal. As the amount of energy used per passenger on a bus is far less than a single-occupancy vehicle, using public transportation can help individuals in Manitoba lower their personal carbon footprint and reduce their transportation-related emissions.
However, there will be some relief on the horizon for a portion of Winnipeg’s vulnerable residents who take public transit. The budget confirmed that there will be a 30% discount off the regular monthly adult fare for those who are eligible. The discount will increase to 40 per cent in 2021 and 50 per cent in 2022. This addition to the budget is a starting point to help decrease poverty in Manitoba’s capital, and it will also evaluate the mobility and welfare benefits gained by the groups receiving discounted transit trips.
3. Public Housing Shift
Funding for public housing was slightly adjusted under the budget as well. Minister Fielding confirmed the province is moving to a “more regulatory model” for Manitoba Housing, while deferring away from owning public house in the province. Despite cash funding for the Manitoba Housing and Renewal Corporation increasing by $10 million, individuals who rely on Manitoba housing are left wondering what this means for them.
Ultimately, what is known now is that the initiative will shift responsibility for public housing to the not-for-profit but the government will still enforce the rules. At this time, it is feared that this could reduce housing options for those in need of the services. Fielding stated, “The Manitoba government’s long-term aspiration is for the eradication of all poverty in the province.”
4. Budget 2020 Takes (Insufficient) Symbolic Steps towards Equality
Funding for Indigenous peoples, as well as gender-equality and disability initiatives were also highlighted in the budget. The provincial government provides a portion of their budget in investments aimed at closing spending gaps in areas pertaining to Indigenous peoples. The government strives to continue to engage with Indigenous communities toward developing a comprehensive reconciliation strategy. They anticipate doing so with additional funding of $568,000 towards developing a comprehensive reconciliation strategy; the annual funding for First Nations policing also increased to $14.488 million.
Citizens of Manitoba were awaiting the budget release in hopes that it would outline a gender-based and racial analysis. The 2020 budget release stated that the government is determined to end gender-based violence in our province. One very small but positive step in this direction was an additional $58,000 in funding for the West Central Women’s Resource Centre to continue research and provide services to work on this vital issue.
Furthermore, the budget includes a $21.2 million increase in funding for Community Living disABILITY Services. However, the budget does not highlight how, what and/or when the budget will support individuals with disabilities in our community.
5. Response to COVID-19
The Manitoba government also plans to keep a tight restraint on spending while preparing for the effects of COVID-19 and natural emergencies such as flooding in the provincial budget. $300 million was put aside for the province’s rainy-day fund, which is funding put aside each year in case of emergencies such as economic and social crises. The budget also accounted for an additional $100 million to be set aside for the emergency expenditures fund. Both will play a critical part in the ever-evolving COVID-19 crisis. The province also states they have $18 million in federal funding for the virus and citizens should expect more funding as the months’ progress. Yet, the budget does not greatly highlight how it will assist those facing layoffs, those whom need sick leave or medical expenses for those who are essential workers and at risk during this pressing pandemic.
Based on the new realities of COVID-19, the social and economic costs of the on-going pandemic will be exorbitant; meaning the newly released budget will have to be fluid in order to deal with the aftermath. During a press-call on March 31st, Mayor Bowman stated it is too early to know how greatly the 2020 budget will be affected by the impact of COVID-19. However, he believes the “balanced multi-year budget” will assist the city in recovering quickly.
The budget concludes by saying “In just four years, Manitoba has made tremendous progress on the road to recovery. The road is long, however, and the journey is far from complete.” In the next four years, let us include an approach that incorporates images of how a society should be organized to ensure that citizens are able to live equally and dignified. That will actually build a better, brighter and more equal future for all.