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Manitoba opens purse before fall election

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government is loosening the purse strings in a pre-election budget that boosts spending on education, child care and municipal infrastructure.

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government is loosening the purse strings in a pre-election budget that boosts spending on education, child care and municipal infrastructure.

But it is also increasing tobacco taxes to help with a two per cent increase in overall spending. Smokers can expect to pay 50 cents more for a pack of 25 cigarettes.

The New Democrats changed the law last year to allow the province to run deficits, and the 2011-12 financial blueprint forecasts a $438- million shortfall on a $14-billion budget. The province is borrowing $49 million from its rainy-day fund to partially offset the deficit.

"We've listened to Manitobans and we've done our best to try to address the issues they have raised with us," Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk said Tuesday.

"They want us to focus on the priorities they have put forward and those priorities are family, building communities, building strong infrastructure and giving an opportunity for education."

October's provincial election will be the first since Premier Greg Selinger took over from Gary Doer as leader of the NDP. Doer stepped down last year to become Canada's ambassador to the United States.

Families with kids enrolled in drama, art or other cultural extracurricular activities will be allowed to claim a new tax credit worth up to $54.

Tuition fee increases are to be capped at the rate of inflation, but universities are to get a five per cent increase in their operating budgets.

Municipalities will also get $5 million more for infrastructure and transit, with a promise that they will get the equivalent of one per cent of the provincial sales tax in coming years to spend on roads and sewers.

The province is also committing to battle a critical shortage in child care by spending $4.7 million to add 2,100 spaces and 400 nursery spots this year.

Manitoba's basic personal exemption is also slowly increasing, starting with $250 this year.

"Our budget puts money back into the pockets of Manitoba's families with an increase in the basic income tax exemption to $1,000 over four years," Wowchuk said.

Wowchuk said Manitoba has more spending power now because it fared better than expected during the economic downturn.

"We are ahead of where we thought we would be," she said. "We are climbing successfully out of the downturn ... We are on schedule to return to surplus by 2014."

The finance minister said she expects the economy to grow almost three per cent this year to allow the province to restore small increases to education property tax rebates which have been delayed.

The budget also contains money for 66 more police officers and cash for more family doctors.

The opposition has already criticized the NDP for using budget goodies to buy votes. Last year's budget forecast four years of deficits, higher user fees and delayed tax cuts.

The NDP said those tough choices are paying off.

"Budgets are about making choices and when the economy was in a downturn, we had to make some decisions," Wowchuk said.

"As a result of that first budget, we are climbing successfully out of the downturn and Manitobans are seeing positive results."

 
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