In Brief: A proposal from Toronto Mayor David Miller to the Toronto City Summit Alliance has launched some controversial discussion recently and the Globe and Mail caught up with AIMS Senior Fellow in Urban Affairs, Patrick Luciani to ask his opinion. Luciani does not support the idea and thinks that it is “out to lunch”.  

The city’s ambitious crusade for a slice of the federal sales tax kicks into high gear today, with the strongest sales pitch yet from Mayor David Miller to an influential group of civic leaders.


“If Canada is going to succeed, cities have to succeed,” says Mr. Miller, who will use a speech to the Toronto City Summit Alliance to launch a populist-style campaign for Toronto and other cities to get one of every six cents of the federal GST.


“I will call on the City Summit Alliance and Torontonians to fight for Toronto by fighting for one cent of the GST,” Mr. Miller said last week, citing a measure worth $450-million for cash-strapped city coffers.


“It is our city, it is our money and it is also our vote,” he declared.


His campaign, now backed in principle by other big-city mayors, is timed to capitalize on a possible federal election this spring and a guaranteed vote in Ontario this October.


But it is the alliance members of 400 or so leaders from business, labour and the non-profit sector who will have their say over the next two days on Mr. Miller’s “one-cent now” campaign and such provocative ideas as road tolls to ease congestion, the right of non-citizens to vote locally and incentives to make Toronto a “green” leader by 2015.


The summit, where bank CEOs rub shoulders with anti-homelessness advocates, amounts to a high-powered brainstorming event for civic leaders and politicians to make “big things happen” to enrich the city and region.


“We are at a pretty critical juncture for the city,” says Alliance chairman David Pecaut, whose organization held its first summit in 2003, when the city was adrift in the final year of Mel Lastman’s second term as mayor. That event led to several initiatives, including a Toronto region research alliance, post-SARS tourism aid and support for cities to get a share of federal and provincial gas taxes.


“There have been some successes, but there is a lot more that needs to be done,” says Mr. Pecaut.

As well as the mayor, delegates will hear from Premier Dalton McGuinty, who asked to wrap up the event tomorrow. Also lined up to speak are Opposition Leader John Tory, federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and federal NDP Leader Jack Layton. The alliance tried unsuccessfully to bring in Prime Minister Stephen Harper or a top cabinet member, leaving Tory Senator Hugh Segal as the sole federal spokesman.

Meanwhile, it is the mayor’s speech, and reaction to it, that may well dominate the session.


Many delegates agree in principle that cities need new fiscal remedies and generally endorse Mr. Miller’s twin call for revenues that grow with the economy and for the province to upload $200-million-plus in social services costs borne locally.

But there is no consensus on the “one-cent now” campaign, which the mayor cranked up on election night last November with a vow that “we won’t take no for an answer.” Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Mr. McGuinty both responded with an immediate “No.”


Since then, Mr. Miller has refined his pitch.


Since not all provinces have a sales tax, Mr. Miller and other big-city mayors now focus the one-cent campaign on Ottawa. Last July, the Harper government cut the GST rate to 6 per cent and promised a further drop later to 5 per cent.


“Where there is room to cut, there is room to share,” argues Mr. Miller, who says that sharing sales-tax revenues with cities would carry more punch for the nation than a tax cut that flows to individual pockets.


Many economists and urban thinkers endorse calls to ease the fiscal straitjacket on cities.


But TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond, a speaker at this week’s forum, is lukewarm about Ottawa handing over a slice of GST revenues as a grant. “Whoever spends the money should be on the hook for raising it,” he says, which would be the case if Toronto had the power to levy its own sales tax.


University of Toronto municipal finance expert Enid Slack says “cities have made a convincing argument that there is a fiscal gap and something needs to be done.


“Whether it is uploading services or downloading new revenue tools, something has to be done,” she says. But Toronto has to take some politically painful steps itself, she adds, such as raising residential property taxes and hiking user fees.


Critics of the city’s agenda predict the “one-cent now” crusade will fail.


“It’s public policy by begging and completely out to lunch,” says Patrick Luciani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “You can’t build public policy by cajoling other governments to give you more money.”