11/28/2013 05:15 EST | Updated 01/28/2014 05:59 EST

Infrastructure work paid with tax hike creates 1,000s of jobs: Manitoba premier

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger defended his government's tax increase in a donation request to NDP members Thursday, and said the hike has already led to work for thousands of people.

In what is billed as a "special year-end message" to party faithful, Selinger called the decision to raise the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven last July a difficult but necessary move. The extra cash is helping the province match federal funding for infrastructure projects such as highway work.

"It's not a decision I ever expected to make, but these investments are stimulating our economy and have already created work for thousands of Manitobans."

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives accused Selinger of spinning the numbers. The government has announced plans for several new projects in the last few weeks, but they are a long way from starting, said Infrastructure critic Ralph Eichler.

"This is Manitoba. We don't lay pavement, we don't start infrastructure projects in November," Eichler said.

"The government is still trying to defend this (tax) increase, but they're just grabbing at straw."

Selinger was not immediately available for comment late Thursday. His press secretary, Matthew Williamson, said the construction industry is already gearing up.

"The work has been created because we’ve announced the projects and the industry is beginning to plan for that work," Williamson wrote in an email.

"As you know, we are holding a series of roundtables with industry in order to maximize the benefits of these investments. The work has been created. That doesn't mean the projects are underway."

The government has faced stiff criticism over its tax hike. It sidestepped a requirement for a referendum on any sales tax hike under the province's balanced budget law.

It also initially billed the increase as needed money for a wide range of infrastructure projects — including schools and hospitals — as well as to maintain front-line services.

Earlier this fall, Selinger shuffled his cabinet and changed the messaging on the tax hike, saying that it would go strictly to core infrastructure work such as highways and bridges.

Since the government's Nov. 12 throne speech, Selinger has announced plans to improve Highway 75 between Winnipeg and the U.S. border, Highway 10 north and south of Brandon, and more.

Selinger tells New Democrats in his year-end message the party's plan is in stark contrast to what Tory Leader Brian Pallister would do.

"Brian Pallister has made it clear that he still believes in the failed policies of cuts and privatization," Selinger wrote.

"That's why I need your help keeping Brian Pallister's feet to the fire."

Selinger's message asks for a special donation of "$250, $100 or whatever you can afford" and adds "the PC party under Brian Pallister is energized and they're better financed than ever with big-money supporters".

The bill to enact the sales tax increase has yet to be passed by the legislature. It was one of more than 30 bills that were stalled by the Tories through the spring and summer.

The tax bill and all others left over from the last session are to go to a final vote before the end of the year, under an agreement struck by the NDP and Tories. The fate of bills introduced since the legislature resumed this month, however, remains unclear.

The government tried Thursday to push forward a bill to increase fines for drivers who speed in construction zones. The Tories did not agree to debate the bill, saying the government had not yet responded to questions about whether municipalities might be liable for incorrect construction zone signage.

Later, the Tories said their labour critic had received the response but had yet to review it.

The legislature is scheduled to break Dec. 5.

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