Why the Ontario Liberals’ new budget is bad for Toronto
March 30, 2018
There was a time, not long ago, when John Tory was acting pretty mad at Kathleen Wynne. Her Liberal government wasn’t giving Toronto enough money to repair its crumbling public housing. It wouldn’t even let the city place tolls on its highways to raise money for public transit and other needs. Mr. Tory famously said he was tired of being treated like a little boy in short pants, constantly trotting up to Queen’s Park to say: Please, can I get some help?
All that is over now. It was a much happier mayor who spoke to reporters this week after the release of Ms. Wynne’s free-spending, let-’er-rip budget. He even laughed when reminded of the short pants remark.
And no wonder. Toronto got some goodies in this budget, including the promise of lower GO Transit fares for commuters and part of that housing money Mr. Tory wanted. In fact, just about everyone got something in this shameless attempt to buy votes for June’s election: old people with houses, parents with toddlers, country folk with lousy internet. One opposition MPP called it the Oprah approach to governing: Everyone in the audience gets a car!
But Mr. Tory should temper his enthusiasm. Toronto depends heavily on the provincial government. Twenty per cent of its operating budget comes from Queen’s Park, not to mention the many millions for capital projects such as new subways. If you are a dependent, you like to think that those you depend on are in good financial shape. When they spend as if there is no tomorrow, you should start to worry.
The 11-year-old claps when her parents whip out the plastic any time she asks for the latest thing in runners. The 18-year-old wonders if they are going to have any money left to help her through college. The 30-year-old fears they will leave nothing but debts when they go.
Ms. Wynne leads the most profligate senior government Toronto has faced in memory. The Ontario Liberals have managed to double the provincial debt over the past decade. That millstone around the neck of future generations is expected to reach a staggering $325-billion this year. Now that the Liberals have grown weary of running a balanced budget – a feat they managed for exactly one year – the debt is forecast to climb by billions more.
A provincial government that spends more than it collects year after year is not a reliable partner for Toronto. Let’s not forget what happened the last time the province got into trouble with its spending. A Conservative premier (Mike Harris) came in, turned off the money taps and made municipalities take on the burden of paying for all sorts of things that used to be provincial responsibilities. Toronto is only now recovering.
It could easily happen again if Doug Ford’s Tories win in June. Even if they don’t, the province will have to cut back eventually to avoid being crushed under its debt mountain. When the reckoning comes and the money stops flowing from the province so freely, the city will be left to its own devices like the ward of a broke millionaire.
That means city hall will either have to raise taxes or cut services and scale back its ambitions. Mr. Tory can wave goodbye to his dreams of a rail-deck park or a quick start to the relief subway line. He can say adieu to his hopes for a full rescue package for distressed public housing.
Already, outgoing city manager Peter Wallace warned city council this month, “There is a growing gap between council’s vision for Toronto and available funding.” City hall, thank goodness, can’t run deficits like Queen’s Park, but Toronto, too, has been letting its spending and its ambitions outrun its means.
Mr. Tory knows all of this very well. He is a conservative by background. He claims to run a tight ship at the city. When he himself was leader of the Progressive Conservatives, he used to denounce the Liberals for spending money they didn’t have. Now he applauds them for it.
Never mind the deficits, never mind the debt that piles up and up and up. This, he pronounced on Wednesday, is a good budget for the City of Toronto. Maybe today. But what about tomorrow?