11/06/2012 03:28 EST | Updated 01/06/2013 05:12 EST

Gas tax up, highway funding down: Manitoba Tories say budget doesn't add up

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's opposition leader accused the NDP government Tuesday of highway hypocrisy — cutting back on road construction while forcing motorists to pay higher gas taxes.

The verbal volley was the latest accusation from Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister about how the province funds and fixes roads.

"You can't have it both ways. If you're increasing revenues by those significant amounts ... why are you at the same time dropping your commitment level to infrastructure," Pallister said.

The Tories pointed to budget documents which show capital work on highways this fiscal year is forecast to drop by $16 million, or 4.3 per cent.

Operating costs for highway work are being cut by a smaller amount — $900,000 or 1.5 per cent. It's the same budget that increased the provincial tax on gasoline by 2.5 cents a litre.

The government responded by saying it has spent a record amount on highways in recent years, and had to increase capital spending in other areas such as flood protection following major damage in the spring and summer of last year.

"When (Pallister) was in government in the 1990's, the capital highway budget at that time was as low as $85 million. We're currently ... nearly quadruple that," Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said.

Even with the budget changes, the government's $350 million highway capital budget exceeds the $296 million it receives from fuel taxes.

The debate comes at a time when the government is trying to cut costs and contain a deficit that ballooned last year to $999 million.

The Tories have called on the government to cut spending, but have criticized any changes to highway funding.

Last month, the government cut overnight snow-clearing on several major highways, except during snow storms, and the Tories called it a threat to public safety.

More recently, the Tories blasted a proposal by Manitoba Public Insurance, the provincial Crown corporation that has a monopoly on vehicle insurance in the province, to help pay for road work that improves safety.

Pallister called it a hidden tax, but the government said it would support the plan if it can reduces accidents and lower insurance premiums.