03/04/2014 02:37 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba finance minister says she will table meat-and- potatoes budget

WINNIPEG - After two years of steep tax increases, Manitobans appear to be in for a status quo budget Thursday with no big hits to the pocketbook.

Finance Minister Jennifer Howard said Tuesday the upcoming fiscal plan will be a "meat-and-potatoes" budget with few surprises.

"You're not going to see a lot of big moves on taxes. This is a budget focused on jobs, focused on growth in the economy ... and focused on protecting those services that are important to Manitobans," Howard said during a pre-budget photo opportunity inside a small jewelry store in Winnipeg's Exchange District.

Unlike the traditional pre-budget shoes purchased by finance ministers in some jurisdictions, Howard bought a $35 necklace that raises funds for the United Way. It was, she said, tied partly to her budget's aim of helping small businesses, entrepreneurs and skills training.

The budget will be Howard's first. She took over the finance portfolio from Stan Struthers, who angered many voters last year when he raised the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven. The previous year, Struthers expanded the sales tax to cover more items, including insurance. He also raised taxes on tobacco and gasoline.

This year, Howard said, the only big shift on taxes will be a previously announced cut in school property taxes for seniors. The NDP promised to eliminate the levy in the 2011 election, then announced last year it would start phasing in the reduction.

User fees, however, may increase, she added.

"In all budgets, different fees may go up to compensate for the increasing costs of services."

The government has been trying to tackle the deficit and has already pushed back a promise to balance the books by two years. The government is on track to be in the black by the revised target of the 2016-17 fiscal year, Howard said. But she made it clear it is not an iron-clad commitment.

"If there's a flood, we're going to fight the flood. I'm not going to make a decision not to protect people's homes because we have a deficit," she said.

"I'm confident that we're on track, but I also know that we have to protect Manitoba families. We have to protect the services that are important to them."

The budget comes at a time when the governing New Democrats are well behind the Opposition Progressive Conservatives in opinion polls. The next election is slated for the spring of 2016.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister said a budget without tax hikes will not be enough to soothe voter anger over the NDP's previous increases.

"This is going to be a placebo budget," he said.

"The NDP government is counting on Manitobans swallowing a sugar pill and forgiving and forgetting ... that's a pretty significant task, I think, the government's undertaking to try to make Manitobans forget that."