05/30/2013 03:23 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba government sets out political party subsidies, deficit penalties

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's governing New Democrats will start collecting $195,000 a year in a new political subsidy that the Opposition Progressive Conservatives want scrapped altogether.

The measure is contained in a 62-page omnibus budget bill presented to the legislature Thursday, which also extends softened penalties for cabinet ministers for running deficits.

The subsidy for political parties is aimed at ensuring that politics is not controlled by the rich, Finance Minister Stan Struthers said.

"We see the public financing as fitting into ensuring that those with the thickest wallets don't get to control elections."

The push for a public subsidy grew out of the NDP's decision more than a decade ago to ban corporate and union donations. In 2007, the NDP created a plan to replace the money by giving each registered political party $1.25 a year for every vote they received in the most recent election.

The Tories immediately refused to accept their share and called the idea a "vote tax." The NDP also declined its share of the cash, despite protests from delegates at the party's annual conventions.

The government decided to try another route last year by appointing Paul Thomas, a former political science professor, as an independent commissioner to find an acceptable form of subsidy.

Thomas suggested each party be given $100 for every candidate that ran in the most recent election, along with money based on the average number of votes received over the two most recent elections.

Thomas's formula would have given the NDP $279,000 a year. The Tories would have gotten $242,000, while the Liberal and Green parties would have been entitled to much smaller amounts.

Under the bill introduced Thursday, parties entitled to more than $100,000 — only the NDP and Tories in the current political climate — would see their amount cut by 30 per cent. That means the NDP can get $195,000 while the Tories qualify for $170,000.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister promised not to touch a dime of the money, calling it a forced taxpayer subsidy.

"Political parties should earn their own money by going out and asking for support from the people who want to support them with their free will. This takes away that free will," Pallister said Thursday.

The omnibus bill contains a long list of changes, including an extension of a provision that partially protects cabinet ministers' salaries.

Under the province's balanced budget law, the top-up salary that cabinet ministers receive — separate from the base salary given to all legislature members — is supposed to be cut by 20 per cent for a first annual deficit and 40 per cent for every consecutive deficit thereafter.

In 2010, the NDP government announced it would start running deficits until 2015, and suspended many aspects of the balanced budget law, including the pay cut. Cabinet ministers then took a voluntary 20-per-cent cut until 2015.

The government announced last fall that it would run deficits for two more years — until 2017. The bill presented Thursday ensures the pay cut remains at 20 per cent, not 40, through to 2017.

"We've simply extended what was already in place," Struthers said.

The NDP has made several changes to the balanced budget law that essentially forgive the government for running deficits during tough economic times. Another bill currently before the legislature forgives deficits due to a drop in federal transfers or sharp financial losses at Crown corporations.