Federal health-care funding top priority for Manitoba government in 2021-22 budget, says finance minister

Federal funding for health care, infrastructure and supports for industries, such as accommodations and tourism, are top priorities for Manitoba this budget season, Finance Minister Scott Fielding told reporters Friday.

Fielding met virtually with Canada’s other finance ministers Friday, including federal finance minister and deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland. He said there was “good dialogue” about health funding and economic growth strategies, such as potential interprovincial trade and use of renewable energy sources.

“What we’re hearing clearly from Manitobans — it’s time to show us the money when it relates to health care funding,” Fielding told reporters in a scrum after the meeting.

The province has spent roughly $633 million above the initial $6.8 billion earmarked for health care in 2020-21, and more money will have to be spent in order to respond to COVID-19, he added.

In addition to health care, the Manitoba government plans to focus on helping businesses, the education sector, child care and the ongoing pandemic response during fiscal 2021-22, according to a news release issued by the province Friday.

But according to the mid-year financial outlook released last month, Manitoba may have a deficit of over $2 billion at the end of March.

“Our goal as government is to do two things: protect Manitobans and to support businesses and individuals,” said Fielding.

“We’re going to do what it takes in a time of need and most Manitobans would want us to make those investments.”

Fielding added that the sooner COVID-19 cases go down and more people become immunized, the sooner the economy can start to bounce back. 

The provincial budget is usually released in March, but Fielding says the release date is uncertain this year because of the pandemic. The province is also holding off from setting a date until it learns how much federal transfer money it will receive.

“We anticipate [the release date] being a little bit later this year. But until we get the information from Ottawa, we can’t set a date,” said Fielding.

The Manitoba government is currently set to receive $4.8 billion from major federal transfers, including $1.56 billion for health care, in fiscal 2021-22, according to the government of Canada’s department of finance website.

‘Complete non-announcement’

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called Fielding’s update “a complete non-announcement.”

“They’re going to sit and wait for the federal government to do something, which is not how you act in a pandemic,” said Lamont.

“If your house is burning down, you don’t wait and see if your neighbours are going to call 911 for you and get the [firefighters] in.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a national small-business advocate, released an analysis Thursday that stated one in six — or 181,000 — small businesses in Canada are contemplating shutting down for good. More than 2.4 million jobs — or 20 per cent of private sector jobs — are at risk as a result.

Lamont cited that data Friday, saying the province needs to provide more supports for small businesses in Manitoba. One suggestion is to create a grant that helps cover overhead costs for businesses.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew is also calling for supports for the service and fitness industries.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew would like to see further business supports geared specifically to the service and fitness industries. (Ian Froese/CBC)

“In order for them to do their part to help uphold public health, they’re going to be forced to close at least for another three weeks, potentially longer,” said Kinew.

“With this continued closure for the restaurants, for the gyms, for other businesses, the province really needs to step up with additional financial help, because what’s been offered so far is not going to be enough of a lifeline to see many of these hard-working Manitobans and their businesses through this difficult period.”

Kinew suggested giving more money to businesses that are eligible for the Manitoba Bridge Grant, which currently gives up to $10,000 to businesses forced to fully close because of the shift to red level restrictions on Nov. 12.

He’s also wondering if the government could come up with a way to use gyms to help with residents’ mental health, such as using fitness experts’ skills to develop healthy-living programs.

Lamont also alleged that a chunk of the province’s deficit is caused by past bailouts and tax cuts made by the Pallister government.

Public consultations on budget start next week

Manitobans will be able to give their thoughts about where money should be spent in the upcoming fiscal year during public consultation sessions that start next week.

Fielding will host four telephone town halls and four “virtual engagement sessions” from Jan. 26 to Feb. 4. Three of the sessions are for Winnipeggers, two each are for northern and rural residents and there will be one bilingual (English and French) session.

Residents must register on the Manitoba government website to attend the sessions. Manitobans can also provide feedback for the budget through an online survey as well.

Nearly 18,000 people participated in last year’s budget input sessions, Fielding said.