Congratulations, Toronto. We're nominally less fucked.
By a margin of 26 to 19, the new land transfer tax sought by Mayor David Miller to help cover a projected shortfall of nearly a half-billion dollars won council's approval. It marks an important, if modest, step toward dealing, on Toronto's own terms, with the joint provincial legacy of Harris amalgamation and McGuinty neglect and hands Miller and his allies an important, if possibly unwieldy, new fiscal tool and political precedent.
But with the council chamber packed to the gills with artists, community workers and, near the end, dozens of locked-out Fairmont Hotel employees, the beset and bedraggled old tax jalopy pulled past the finish line, though few were commenting on the fact that by this point it was really just a few wheels and a running board.
It may have won, but only barely, and it's not clear how much help Miller will get the next time he needs to take it for a spin.
Budget chief Shelley Carroll was quick to point out that the real work now begins, and she's right in more ways than one. We mustn't ignore how much political hay the opponents of public services were permitted to make from this one, right till the end.
They still feel empowered, for one thing, to flat-out lie. Both Denzil Minnan-Wong and Karen Stintz lamented how the debate had been dragged out. "We've been debating these for too long. I don't want to debate them any more," said Stintz, as if she hadn't helped orchestrate a two-month of the matter.
In fact, that deferral also led to a gutting of the potential new revenue. Besides the implementation delay itself, a rebate system for first-time buyers added to make the land transfer tax more politically palatable means the package whose worth was originally projected to be $356 million will now bring in an estimated $175 million. This leaves a $239 million shortfall for next year's operating budget.
Public service opponents, of course, went for this pressure point. "We have been told for months that the mayor's new taxes were vital for the future of the city. Miraculously, it seems now we can do just as nicely with over $50 million less than what was originally sought," said Minnan-Wong. (The disparity is closer to $150 million.)
"This is either a modern-day loaves and fishes story or a sign that our city is a management-free zone." Or it's a sign that Minnan-Wong thinks no one will remember that he spent the past two months trying to widen that gap with less tax revenue, there's more space to push for cuts.
Expect this to be matched, in true strategic flip-flop form, with constant complaints that those taxes aren't resulting in service improvements. "The proceeds of extraordinary taxes should translate into some visible improvement in public service," said Minnan-Wong. "If Torontonians when taxed see only payment but no improvement, they will rightly feel robbed."
But expect, as well, opposition to any new programs on the grounds that expansion would be irresponsible when Miller made us pay more taxes to solve a financial crisis.
And now that Stintz is clearly gearing up for a mayoral run in 2011, expect objections to City Hall's "democratic deficit" under the new strong mayor system championed by Miller to become the key talking point.
"We don't build a city by taxing the few. We build a city by engaging the many," said Stintz during debate.
Here's the thing. Superficially, she's right. The strong mayor system was a mistake, and the budget process hasn't exactly opened up under Miller. This may be partly because he's under constant attack from ideological opportunists but only partly.
Minnan-Wong, of course, continues to insist the solution is finding "efficiencies" to solve the budget gap, and, of course, continues to come up light on answers when I ask him to give me the list.
He says his attempts to generate such a list are being hamstrung. "When you ask questions of staff, they don't help you out," he tells me. "When I write to staff and ask questions about how much money we'd save doing a wage freeze aside from whether you can do it or not I've got no response."
The calls for open debate did happen, but one wonders if this self-styled opposition seeks consensus or just a fault line it can turn into a political rift on council. And anyone sympathetic to the cause of decentralization should rightly resent its being tethered to an attack on public services.
Still, though, the right gains ground, owing partly to Miller's defensive posture. From the vantage point of the half-truths that are the currency of radio call-in shows, the right's accusations ring true.
We should be glad someone won this debate, and we should be glad it was Miller. But as Adam Vaughan put it, this was a debate on how to tax the next one will be on how much. With battle lines drawn, it's hard to imagine sensible suggestions on both necessary cuts and necessary revenue. And can we say right now if Miller emerged with new allies in place for generating future revenue or just an emaciated tax package?
Let staff do the reports on all the odious inquiries about cutting wages and such. It's time to open things up. It's time for political judo. Stand tall, arms open, let them come at you and use their momentum against them. If these neo-liberal visions of a city are indeed ridiculous and they are then it should be simple enough to slam them down on the mat, with form and style, no less.
Interview with Denzil Minnan-Wong