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Manitoba school tax rebellion

Colin Craig, Manitoba Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, dreams of a school tax-free Manitoba.

Colin Craig - February 4, 2009

Eliminating school taxes sounds like an impossible dream, but it’s easier than you think. All it would take is some leadership and a commitment to putting the interests of John and Jane taxpayer first.

For starters, it should be noted that across the province, school taxes raised $654 million in 2008-09. That sounds like a significant revenue stream to eliminate, but over a ten year period, it’s a reasonable goal.

Moreover, if Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Alberta can operate with either miniscule school tax rates or none at all, Manitoba can too.

Consider the history of education spending over the last ten years. According to provincial government documents, approximately $1.2 billion was spent on public, K-12 education in 1999. Today, that figure has risen to $1.7 billion. That works out to an increase in spending of $543 million or roughly $300 million above the rate of inflation.

Now consider the fact that the number of students in the system has dropped from 192,204 in 1999, to 179,101 for 2008-09.

If the number of students - the system’s raison d’etre - is dropping yet costs are skyrocketing, it clearly sounds like taxpayers are being taken for a ride. This certainly lends credibility to the argument that government programs will gobble up as many tax dollars as they can without regard for those that are footing the bill.

Speaking of bills, let’s look at expenditures on salaries and benefits, an area representing over 80 percent of the cost of K-12 education. According to provincial government data, salaries and benefits have increased from $0.97 billion in 1999 to $1.42 billion for 2008-09. Even after you adjust for inflation, the amount spent on this area has still increased by approximately $270 million. Considering school board staff salaries increased this year by 4.1 percent and inflation is closer to 2 percent, it’s easy to see why costs are out of control.

After ten years of lucrative salary increases, it’s absolutely reasonable to freeze the amount spent on education salaries for a few years, or at the very least, hold them to the rate of inflation. After all, most taxpayers haven’t seen such lucrative increases.

In fact, had growth in education costs been limited to the rate of inflation over the last ten years, our property tax bills could be half of what they are today.

Next, let’s look at the number of school boards in the province. Considering there are 36 school boards in Manitoba, yet only one board for the entire city of Toronto (remember Toronto has more people than our entire province), isn’t there room for amalgamation? At $60 million in annual school board admin costs, certainly this could be shaved down to $20 million through eliminating administrative costs. Further, there is a case to be made that the entire board system could be eliminated, ensuring more dollars reach the classrooms instead of the pockets of superintendents.

Finally, the provincial government will have to make eliminating school taxes a priority. History has shown, it has the ability to do so. In 1999, total provincial government spending was approximately $6 billion for 1.14 million people. This year the government is expected to spend $9.9 billion for 1.2 million people. Had government spending increased at the rate of inflation and population growth, it would be approximately $7.7 billion - $2 billion less.

Clearly, by holding government expenditures in check, school taxes could easily be eliminated. We just need our elected officials to start putting John and Jane taxpayer first.

Discuss this column online here.

More articles by Colin Craig