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Pay fair
Jan 26, 2007

When first-century AD Emperor Tiberius appointed governors to far-off provinces, the Roman historian Suetonius said he sent them off to their new postings with this advice, “A good shepherd shears his flock but does not flay them.”

Tiberius had to stress this because Roman governors were notorious for flaying their flocks.

When Cicero arrived in Cilicia during the years of the Roman Republic to take up his post as governor, he started a tour of the province and saw that great hardship had been caused by his predecessor. “Everywhere I heard the same tale. People could not pay their taxes; they were forced to sell out their investments ... All the people, as one may suppose, tired of life.””

Toward the end of the Roman Empire, the full weight of property taxes fell upon small landholders, urban middle-class businesspeople and artisans.

Small landholders unable to pay the heavy taxation were liable to be enslaved along with their wives and children.

The actual collecting of taxes was the unwanted fate of the urban middle-class forced by Roman law to serve as town councillors. If their collections fell short of the amount imposed by Rome, they were required to pay the difference out of their own pockets. If they were unable to make up the difference, their property and assets, including the possibility of themselves, were sold at auction. The impositions were so onerous that to avoid serving on a town council, people began to flee their homes in town for the countryside. 

What people thought about being a town councillor is shown by the Emperor Maxentius punishing a Christian (then an illegal religion) by making him a town councillor.

Eventually, laws to keep the taxes flowing were passed tying property owners and their progeny to the land, and dictating that son had to follow father in a trade to keep the taxes flowing. Many landowners, realizing they were going to be taxed to bankruptcy, gave up their small holdings to the large estate owners and became tenants. Estates became a refuge for ruined freeholders, destitute urbanites, rustic workers and slaves on the run. They all became tenants of the large estates — no questions asked because they were a source of cheap labour at a time when slaves were scarce.

In collusion with the wealthy, the state tied tenants to the manorial estates so that the fruits of their labours could be collected by the lords, who then turned over a substantial portion of their labours to the government in the form of taxes in kind. Much of this went to feed the armies on the frontiers trying to stem the tide of barbarian invasions. By helping the state, the wealthy’s labour problems were solved.

Like Imperial Rome, Manitoba uses property as the basis of a particular class of taxation, and like the Roman system, the brunt of the taxation burden is felt by less-wealthy urban and rural landholders as well as small businesses. 

The Manitoba property tax system, like the Roman system, evolved with the passage of time, and it has taken some time for people to fully appreciate the magnitude of their burden as was the case in Rome.

By no means does the Manitoba government impose punishments like those found in ancient Rome, but it does make municipal government its unwilling partner in its property tax regime. 

Each tax season, Manitoba’s municipal governments send out tax bills that include the taxes imposed by school divisions on property. Even with this evidence of who pays what to whom in black and white, mayors, reeves and councillors across Manitoba still get complaints about high school taxes — much to their frustration. Some people still believe that because the tax bill mailed out to them bears a rural municipality, town or city seal, the municipal government is responsible for imposing every tax found within the envelope. Not so. In Winnipeg, some 50 per cent of the total tax bill was imposed by the school division in which you reside with the remainder being municipal taxes.

The letspayfair.com campaign now underway is an attempt to inform Manitobans about the vagaries of funding education through property taxes. 

A prime example is that property taxes, like in ancient Rome, are not reflective of an individual's ability to pay. Seniors on fixed incomes find it difficult to pay their annual school tax bill. In the example cited on this week’s front page, a Ste. Anne senior living in a trailer park pays three times more for school taxes than he does for municipal taxes. 

In the farming community, the portion paid can be even higher. Until the advent of a rebate system — which now covers 60 per cent of the taxes paid to school boards, though only on farmland — farmers could pay up to eight times more in school taxes than their non-farming neighbours.

The rebate system fails to address the overall problem because farmers are still taxed by school divisions on high-value production buildings such as barns. And farmers live crop-to-crop — prices received for these crops can vary dramatically year-to-year — with periods when income is scarce. Keystone Agricultural Producers has indicated that this lack of cash-on-hand forces some farmers to borrow money to pay their tax bill. Only when their tax bill is paid can they apply for the rebate and then receiving the rebate takes time.

In Winnipeg the school tax bill is approaching 50 per cent of the total property taxes paid each year. Increases in the school tax portion of the property tax bill is at the discretion of school boards, who have the same authority to raise property taxes as mayors, reeves and councillors.

The Manitoba Education Financing Coalition’s letspayfair.com campaign makes a strong argument for eliminating education funding from property taxes. “Education is a core service and should be properly funded from general revenues,” says the coalition, representing 250,000 Manitobans.

As Tiberius said, shearing the flock is wiser than flaying it. It is also wiser for this province to remain tax competitive with its neighbours or face the prospect of losing more young people to more competitive provinces such as Alberta and B.C. Even the so-called “have-not” provinces — Manitoba is a member of this club — of P.E.I, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have seen the light and have eliminated the collection of education funding through property taxes.