07/09/2013 12:38 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Mba cabinet minister apologizes for calling tax hike critic 'howling coyotes'

WINNIPEG - A Manitoba cabinet minister is apologizing for characterizing people who oppose the government's provincial sales tax increase as "howling coyotes."

Ron Lemieux, minister for local government, made the comment in the legislature last week. He said presenters at public hearings who support the tax increase weren't heard "over the din of the howling coyotes that we heard all night."

"Members opposite were there clapping to some of the comments that were made that were really disrespectful," Lemieux said last Thursday.

On Tuesday, he said he was referring to opposition MLAs when he made the coyote comment. But Lemieux conceded the legislative transcript does seem to suggest he was referring to people who were critical of the government.

"I was making my comments about the members of the opposition," Lemieux said in the legislature. "I should never have done that in the first place. We're trying to treat this as a respectful workplace and I should have never geared my comments to the members opposite.

"They certainly were not geared to the public that ... spent hot evenings presenting thoughtful presentations on both sides of the issue.

"If those individuals who came to present felt somehow that they were slighted by my comments, I regret that very, very much."

Public hearings were "hot and sweaty and sticky," but that didn't deter some from spending most of the evening waiting to have their say, Lemieux said.

"We really respected that."

About 130 people spoke out about the PST hike at hearings which concluded on the weekend. The increase — to eight per cent from seven — has been collected since July 1, even though the bill regarding the sales tax hasn't been passed yet in the legislature.

As part of the budget bill, the NDP government is changing the law so it doesn't have to hold a referendum on the tax increase. The government has argued it needs the extra revenue to pay for improving infrastructure.

House leader Jennifer Howard, who attended many of the hearings, said government members were respectful and attentive, even in the face of some very angry presenters.

"Could (Lemieux) have chosen his words more wisely? Absolutely," she said. "That happens to all of us."

Howard said Manitobans are practical and realize that if they want to maintain important public services such as health care and education, they need to pay for them.

But the Opposition says Lemieux's comments show the disrespect the NDP government has for the law and those who oppose the tax increase. Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister pointed out the public hearings were held after retailers had already begun collecting it July 1.

"They sent that message that we're going to do it anyway, so why even bother coming?" Pallister said. "That's just undemocratic. It's disrespectful to people and people can make a difference."

As of Tuesday, the province had already collected $6.5 million in the extra tax, according to the Conservatives.

Pallister said the increase is by no means a done deal. He said the government will have to answer for breaking its own law by collecting the tax without a referendum — and the Tories are prepared to take the matter to court.

"Our resolve is tremendously high," he said. "This process is not over. It's just beginning and we will continue to use every avenue to oppose these measures because they are a dangerous precedent."