Here's what the future might hold for our city if Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals form the next provincial government.
The relationship between Toronto and the Liberal Party of Ontario is complex. While the NDP has its downtown strongholds, and the PCs have recently made inroads in Thornhill and the Fords’ Etobicoke, much of the city remains solidly Liberal—hence the party’s hold on power for the last eleven years. We shrug and ignore eHealth, Ornge, gas plants, and assorted micro-scandals, and keep our ridings Grit-red year after year. So what can we expect in return for our unflinching, seemingly inexplicable loyalty should the Liberals win again?
Leader Kathleen Wynne has said that if she keeps the big office, she’ll reintroduce the rejected budget that triggered the fall of her government. What goodies do the budget, and all the subsequent electioneering, promise the T-dot?
The big-ticket item here is $15 billion over 10 years for transportation and infrastructure in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). The plan would include GO upgrades that would provide for electrification and allow trains to run every 15 minutes on all lines (presumably whether they are needed to or not); a TTC “relief line” (like the PCs, the Grits have stripped out the politically risky “downtown” from the name); and the building up of Hamilton’s transit (which counts if we consider Hamilton as a less hipsterish Brooklyn to Toronto’s more insecure Manhattan.)
Obviously, trains are awesome: the problem is funding. Not much more than a year ago, Wynne was making bold noises about the fact that transit should be funded by new, dedicated revenue sources—possibly including tolls, congestion charges, or even a provincial sales tax. Shortly thereafter, Metrolinx came out with a study that recommended an increase in the HST, a new five-cent fuel tax, and a variety of other dedicated measures be used to pay for transit expansion. Wynne, faced on the one hand with this expert recommendation and on the other with a minority government and a disgruntled electorate, sent the question away for further study.
As a result, the funding for Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends would have to come largely from existing revenue streams—the current gas tax and the HST—which would likely create gaps in support for current programs. The Liberals might also employ the “borrow and beg” strategy by issuing new “green bonds” and lobbying the feds to pony up some cash through the Building Canada Plan. Given that the province is still crawling out of the 2008 recession, these trains could be slow to arrive.
The proposed Ontario Pension Plan isn’t Toronto specific, but it warrants mention because it’s arguably the boldest move in the budget. Under this proposal—basically a middle finger raised at Stephen Harper for his refusal to enhance the Canada Pension Plan—workers and employers would pay into a plan that would then supplement their meagre CPP earnings after retirement. The upside of this is obvious: greater income security for the elderly, with the added benefit that the youth of tomorrow won’t have to deal with a cohort of cranky Gen Xers tweeting about eating cat food for breakfast. The downside is that it’s a new tax, and not a trivial one: you and your employer could each be on the hook for up to $1,600 a year (depending on income). And there are other, arguably more efficient ways to get people to save for retirement.
The Grits are thinking of the children here, presumably in part because they wanted to force the NDP into making a choice between supporting the budget or looking like heartless Hudakians. A Wynne government would oversee the continued rollout of the all-day kindergarten subsidized daycare plan (which the Tories would halt), and bump the Ontario Child Benefit to $1,310 annually and index it to inflation. Older kids aren’t left out; the Liberal budget continues the current grant for 30 per cent off tuition. Programs such as these are particularly important to Toronto, where child poverty is more than twice the national and provincial average.
Office Space, Ontario Place, Farms, and Trees
In the city itself, the Grits propose to save money by squishing civil servants closer together like the Tokyo subway commuters during rush hour, thereby freeing up about a million square feet of office space.
They also commit to transforming Ontario Place back into the family fun centre that it hasn’t been since around the time Pong was invented—starting with the creation of the already announced Urban Park and Waterfront Trail, scheduled to open in 2015.
The Libs would also “create a Farms Forever Program to protect prime agricultural land close to urban centres” and “promote urban forestry by planting one million trees” (with no word on how many of those Toronto would get).
To offset all these projected costs, the Wynne government proposes a few measures, notably a hike in personal income tax for those earning over $150,000 annually, and a few billion in anticipated savings through a restructuring of pension expenses. In the meantime, the government is expecting lower than originally forecast revenues over the next of couple years, and yet is still promising to eliminate the deficit by 2018. Whether you buy the Liberal claim that they’re “on track” with the deficit fighting (it depends which projection you’re working with), their current schedule calls for them to drop the billions at an accelerating rate over the next four years—and it’s not clear how they would make that happen. So the overall Liberal plan might paint a pretty picture for Toronto—lots of new transit, youth being educated, the elderly being supported—but it fails to answer one crucial question: How much of this generosity can we actually afford?
This post originally stated that the Liberals are proposing a tax hike for those earning between $150,000 and $220,000 annually; in fact, the hike would affect all those earning over $150,000 annually.
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