Monday, July 30, 2007

It's called "budgeting".

I haven't written much about the whole "Toronto can't keep the city running" fracas we're having in the city, basically because a) many people have expressed my views better and sooner than I, and b) the whole issue makes me question my faith in human reason and democracy.

Basically, for those just tuning in, Toronto -- like many Ontario municipalities -- was saddled with a lot of social services during the Harris years, and the costs for those services keep going up. Unlike other municipalities, Toronto has been given extra revenue-generating powers by the McGuinty government to meet those costs. So the geniuses at City Hall, after literally more than a decade of lobbying for those same powers, can't even decide on whether to use those powers or not. You heard me right: they postponed a decision on whether or not to raise new taxes. By one vote.

Ah, and it continues to get worse: since that vote, at least two councillors have said they've changed their minds. Why? Because they saw the vote as an elaborate stunt, designed to blackmail Dalton McGuinty in to sending some Ontario dollars down Toronto way. McGuinty, no fool, is going in to an election and doesn't want to be seen shovelling money in to Toronto's coffers. (Forget bilingualism or health care: the only thing keeping this country together is the universal loathing of Toronto.) So, after the stunt failed -- with Finance Minister Greg Sorbara making an incredbly condescending statement about teaching Toronto to "save money" -- council might be willing to look at actually, uh, raising revenue to pay for its obligations.

Like Mr. Scoville at The Vanity Press, I agree with McGuinty -- Toronto has powers unique in the province, and should use them to get through over this hurdle, if nothing else. (It's worth saying that the Mayor is also a voice of sanity here.) But it's a bit much for the Premier to lecture Toronto about meeting it's own obligations. Dalton McGuinty has, after all, spent far more time in government going to Ottawa whining about not getting enough money than Toronto City Council has. And the Province of Ontario has vastly more fundraising powers than the City of Toronto ever will. Worst of all, McGuinty has presided over a provincial government while the Feds have cut taxes -- McGuinty could have raised taxes in Ontario without, on balance, changing anyone's tax burden. (Raising the PST when Harper cut the GST, for example.) But McGuinty was already burned by having to raise taxes when he took office, and wants to be re-elected. So it turns out that in Ontario politics, what's good for the goose isn't, in fact, good for the gander: Ontario deserves every nickel of money that it's asking for, but under no circumstances will Toronto get the money it wants.

Finally, it's worth noting that even if Toronto didn't have the special powers it was given by the McGuinty government, it still could have raised the necessary revenue, the way other cities in Ontario do: property taxes. When I was living in Ottawa, the taxes were increasing literally every year. Homeowners in Toronto pay lower tax rates than other cities in Ontario -- thank you, developers lobby! -- including Ottawa. (Montrealers also pay higher taxes.)

Long-term, yes, the Province should take back the social services they forced on the city -- or let the Feds pay for them, if Ottawa's willing. Frankly, there's not a lot of reason for the provincial-level division of powers in the 21st century -- I'm more a proponent of "hourglass federalism", with all the powers pushed (preferably) to the bottom or (when necessary) the very top. But that's a pipe-dream, and the provinces are far more paranoid about Ottawa encroaching on their turf than they are interested in actually providing their constituents with the services they pay for.

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