Tory Ontario's Mega-Week

In a downtown Toronto hotel last week, 300 trustees and school board staff had gathered for the annual conference of the Ontario Public School Board Association.

Tory Ontario's Mega-Week

In a downtown Toronto hotel last week, 300 trustees and school board staff had gathered for the annual conference of the Ontario Public School Board Association. But two of the most eagerly anticipated guests, provincial Education Minister John Snobelen and deputy minister Veronica Lacey, were notable for their absence. In fact, Snobelen and Lacey cancelled their traditional appearances at the OPSBA conference only at the last minute - too late to remove Lacey's name from the meeting's brochure, which listed her as a keynote luncheon speaker.

But if the trustees were disappointed by the ministerial non-attendance, they should not have been surprised. After all, Snobelen had just announced sweeping reforms that will reduce the number of school boards from 168 to a mere 66 - and the number of trustees from 1,900 to 700. In Toronto, trustees were left wondering who would govern the education of Ontario's two million schoolchildren. "There are lots of details missing," said Donna Cansfield, president of the national school board association and a participant at the conference. "Actually, this government is big on lack of detail."

With its sweeping educational reforms, however, Conservative Premier Mike Harris's majority government was only warming up - and the details be damned. Over five days that came to be dubbed Mega-Week, a string of ministers announced radical legislative changes that promise to fundamentally restructure government in Ontario. The omnibus package, which the Conservatives have slated for passage before the spring, sketches out an elaborate give-and-take between the province and municipalities. And its introduction last week during an extraordinary midwinter session of the legislature, with Harris himself in Asia as part of the Team Canada trade mission, touched off yet another political firestorm for the province's deficit-fighting Tories.

Beginning in 1998, the province will completely take over from municipalities the financial burden of education, which now costs property-tax payers $5.4 billion. In return, Queen's Park will hand off to municipalities much of its share of the cost of welfare, public health, care for seniors, transit, police, sewer and water systems, and libraries - programs totalling about $6.4 billion. Declared Finance Minister Ernie Eves: "This is the most significant thing the government is going to do in its mandate."

Few could argue with that, as the legislation affects almost every facet of local government. Among its major elements:

1) Costs for primary and secondary school education will be removed from residential property taxes and replaced with provincial grants. Along with the school board cuts, parent advisory councils will be entrenched in law, giving, Snobelen said, more power to parents over curriculum, report cards and discipline.

2) Municipalities will assume responsibility for public housing, health programs and land ambulance services. As well, half of the $2.3-billion cost of homes for the aged and infirm will be shifted to local governments. Most controversial, however, was Social Services Minister Janet Ecker's announcement that municipalities will administer welfare - and pick up 50 per cent of the $5.6-billion social assistance tab, now largely paid by the province.

3) As of next January, 576 communities that have enjoyed free provincial police services will have to pay for them from property taxes, saving the province an estimated $182 million.

4) Most municipalities will have to pay the full cost of public transit, ferries and airports, and will be responsible for provincial roads that pass through municipal boundaries.

5) The 25 per cent of water and sewer systems now run by the province will be handed to the local level, as well as responsibility for funding them.

6) The formula for evaluating property taxes will be unified under a policy of actual value assessment, a system based on a property's current value. In the two-thirds of communities that have kept property assessments up to date, the government estimated that the new formula will have no net effect on taxes. In other cities, however, where property values have not been re- assessed for years, the jump in taxes will be "substantial," Eves said.

Despite their complexity, the changes are intended to simplify the machinery of government - the buzzword last week was "disentanglement." The Tories claim the new laws will reduce duplication of services and increase efficiency. "There's no secret that government in this province has become too big, too wasteful and too complicated," said Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach. "We believe the people of Ontario will be the winners." By the government's estimates, the swap of spending responsibility will have no negative effect on municipal coffers - in effect, it will result in "a wash," Leach said. The Conservatives claim that the $5.4 billion in education grants, along with a provincial reserve fund for local governments that see welfare costs increase, will make up for the $6.4 billion in costs transferred to the municipalities.

But as Mega-Week continued, many civic leaders openly questioned the government's math. For one thing, said Terry Mundell, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the province is assuming a relatively predictable cost - education - while handing off programs like welfare that are subject to the business cycle. And, he said, the rules for accessing the welfare reserve fund are still unclear. "If a property-tax payer asked me what it meant to his tax bill, I couldn't tell him and I don't think there's anybody in the province who could tell him," added a clearly frustrated Mundell. "I mean, who the hell knows?"

The most hardened criticism of the moves, however, came from Metropolitan Toronto - already sharply divided by the province's plan to amalgamate its disparate municipalities into one huge mega-city. Metro chairman Alan Tonks estimated that Toronto would end up at least $87 million in the red. One reason: the city is home to more than one-quarter of people receiving social assistance in the province. And some critics were already spinning nightmare scenarios about the future of Toronto's downtown. One provincial urban planner who asked not to be identified said that welfare costs and actual value assessment could drive up property taxes so much that they will cause middle-class homeowners to flee the populated downtown core - leading to a "doughnut-and-hole" of urban decay. "It is simply disastrous," said the planner. "People wouldn't be so hysterical if they thought there was a rationale to it, but this is purely dumb."

Other critics had almost as much trouble with the style of the Tory assault as with the substance. Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said the Conservatives' "unprecedented" attempt to push through such massive changes in one week was intended "to dizzy us with a flurry of new legislation, so that we can't keep our eye on the ball." Even some conservative commentators questioned the government's haste in trying to implement the new laws. "We've moved from the common-sense side to the revolution side," said University of Waterloo political science professor Peter Woolstencroft, himself a Tory. "Even people who voted Conservative and support the government are saying that things are going too fast."

Still, the Tories continue to be the province's most popular party: a December Angus Reid poll shows them with 44-per-cent support, compared with 38 for the Liberals and 13 for the NDP. And party sources say that one driving force behind Mega-Week is simple logistics. The 1998 deadline, they say, is crucial to Harris's fiscal plan. If the hand-over of spending powers is not implemented by then, the Tories cannot fulfil their campaign promise of balancing the budget - and lowering income taxes by 30 per cent - within their mandate.

Another major factor, however, is clearly political. By pushing through myriad reforms quickly - especially while the premier himself is out of province - the Conservatives are scrambling their opposition simply by providing too many targets. It is a style, Tories say, that Harris has adopted after carefully studying Ralph Klein's Alberta Conservatives, who in turn took their cue from New Zealand's deficit-cutting Labor government of the mid-1980s. Indeed, an unapologetic, four-point motto attributed to then-New Zealand Finance Minister Roger Douglas sums up an approach that Harris and his Ontario Conservatives have clearly taken to heart: "Hit them hard. Hit them fast. Don't blink. No sacred cows."

Maclean's January 27, 1997