Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

The push for fiscal responsibility in Toronto comes from council’s left

By: Metro Published on Thu Mar 12 2015

Most people with even a passing interest in politics have a pretty defined view of the difference between left-wing politicians and right-wing politicians. Sure, it’s simplistic, but also pretty pervasive.

Left-wing politicians, the story goes, are all about spending money to expand programs and create new ones. Right-wingers, on the other hand, are more naturally cautious with public funds and reluctant to spend more. As a result, it’s the penny-pinching conservatives that more frequently get to lay claim to being “fiscally responsible.”

That may or may not be true elsewhere. It's definitely not true at Toronto city hall.

Over the last few years, responsible budgeting has virtually become the exclusive domain of Toronto City Council left wing. As the city’s long-term fiscal forecast has gotten drearier — weighed down by mounting costs caused by provincial downloading, unfunded affordable housing repair costs, TTC accessibility needs and a thousand other things — it’s been “pinkos” like Coun. Gord Perks and Coun. Shelley Carroll that have called for immediate and realistic fixes.

The counter-argument from right-wing politicians like Coun. Rob Ford and Mayor John Tory? Hey, don’t worry — we’ll figure it out next year.

That divide was on display this week as the mayor and councillors debated and approved the city’s 2015 operating budget. Most key motions from left-wing councillors were not about increasing spending for new programs, but rather about finding money to maintain programs that already exist.

Early on, Coun. Perks moved the most fiscally responsible suggestion of the two-day session, calling for the blended tax increase across all commercial and residential properties to be increased to 3.42 per cent from 1.83 per cent.

It was a Hail Mary play. There was no chance most councillors — always fearful of angry constituents — were going to back a move that would put the total residential increase at about 5.6 per cent.

But there’s no denying it was also the most prudent thing to do.

Perks’ motion would have erased the need for the city to go with a complicated and risky plan to borrow money from itself to deal with pain created by the elimination of provincial funding for housing. With that challenge behind them, councillors could have focused on other challenges facing the 2016 budget, instead of scrambling to find the cuts necessary to support the loan payback scheme.

Most importantly, Perks’ motion would have prevented councillors from passing a budget that effectively carries a built-in operating deficit — something never before done by an amalgamated City of Toronto government.

Alas, Perks’ motion was voted down by the centrists and right-wingers, 10-34.

The next day brought another key motion to the budget debate — one that also came from a notable left-winger.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam pointed out that just about half of TTC subway stations are inaccessible to people using mobility devices like wheelchairs. She also noted that provincial legislation requires all stations to be accessible by 2025 — a deadline the TTC says they can’t make without funding.

So she did the responsible thing.

Wong-Tam moved that staff write a report about the possibility of bringing back the vehicle registration tax, with all revenues going toward TTC accessibility and service improvements.

We can quibble about whether the car tax is the right mechanism for this kind of funding, but she deserves credit for offering up a solution to a very pressing problem. The problem of TTC accessibility deserves more than a shrug.

Her motion failed, too, 14-30.

Here’s what the predictable result of the vote looks like on a map:

The remainder of the budget passed with almost unanimous support, with just Ford and Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti standing in total opposition.

The result of all this is a budget drafted by self-described fiscal conservatives that exposes the city to a lot of risk, doesn’t do much to address pressing problems and in fact creates new problems by introducing the need to make loan payments. It’s a budget that compounds issues that have already been compounded for several years — decades, in some cases.

I’m not trying to be negative. On the whole, this budget is a step forward compared to those passed under Ford. But the continued tendency for municipal politicians to opt for low property taxes over long-term stability isn’t going to work for much longer. Too many items with high price tags have been pushed into the future.

Eventually all of council — and not just one side of it — is going to need to learn what it means to be fiscally responsible.

This post was originally published at on 2015-03-12T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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