Notes On A Budget Debate From The Peanut Gallery

February 25, 2011

Well, it’s done. Mayor Ford got his first budget passed thoroughly, decisively and, gleaning from the post-meeting rhubarb and chatter, in near record time. We are now fully living in a Rob Ford Toronto. And yes, the sun did rise, the snow did fall and a vehicle registration tax rebate showed up in the mail. Delivered to the wrong address as I haven’t owned a car for years now.

There were few close votes, no losses that ultimately mattered but the mayor did not emerge unscathed. On day 1 of the budget, he made the mistake of getting up to speak, ostensibly to let council know which way he was voting on a handful of amendments and get his ducks in a row. This opened him up to 3 minutes of questioning from any and every councillor who so chose. That he (and his team) didn’t realize this would happen speaks volumes. After 10 years on council, the mayor remains oblivious to how the place works and/or he thinks that as mayor, normal rules don’t apply.

Whatever the thinking, Mayor Ford got caught in the headlights. Nothing Speaker Nunziata did — herself, no wizard when it comes to council protocol, and another staggering example of ignorance from someone who’s spent decades in municipal governance — could save the mayor from a spectacular car crash of a performance. Captured here by the Torontoist in all its glory, it may be the last time we ever see the mayor attempt this stunt again. Certainly by day 2, his team had resorted to quiet note passing in order to lean on the councillors they needed to get votes passed.

Even in silence, the mayor managed to further embarrass himself. When a motion was brought forth to accept $100,000 from the province for HIV awareness and education, the mayor was on his own voting against it, 44-1, summoning up images from his days as a councillor. This, even after an amendment was attached to make sure it didn’t become an annual program that the province mandated and funded less and less. Just another addition to the Gravy Train. Still, no go for the mayor who simply proved himself to be a confirmed homophobe, and no amount of post-vote talk of looking after the taxpayers of Ontario could overturn the fact Mayor Ford simply has a problem with teh gays.

More ominously still for the mayor, despite drumming up overwhelming support for his budget, the items included in the operating budget passed on average of a 31-14 vote, he made no new friends in the process. He used all the powers of the bully pulpit that come with the office of mayor, trumpeting his overwhelming mandate from the voters of Toronto that was echoed throughout the press, giving him seeming powers of edict. All of which is most certainly his prerogative. He’s not the first to have done that.

What he did not do, though, was build a consensus. There was no coalition of the willing. Only those councillors who believe and are counting on the fact that Mayor Ford represents the will of a majority of Torontonians. While dubious, at this point of time, it seems like a safe bet.

And will continue to be so as long as the mayor pulls off what no other fiscally conservative politician has done in 30 years. If he can turn a surplus into a deficit with tax cuts and then balance the books, pay off the debt without ever raising taxes again or cutting services, Mayor Ford will have his way at City Hall for as long as he wants. He won’t need friends. Just allies.

But if, as history has shown, this economic theory isn’t nearly as solid in practice as it on the chalkboard, and taxes have to rise, valuable assets put up on the auction block and taxpayers of Toronto start seeing all those ‘reallocations’ and ‘readjustments’ as nothing more than major service cuts when their regular bus doesn’t arrive or if it does, it costs more to ride or their library branch is no long open on Sundays or their classes and courses at community centres cost more, Mayor Ford will see his council support dry up. Fair-weather friends like Councillors Mammoliti and Stintz will bail at the first sign of trouble. New councillors now sitting on the fence, won’t be nearly as compliant.

Think I’m just engaging in wishful thinking? Maybe. But I witnessed a telling moment yesterday. Josh Colle, one of the freshman councillors and political moderates, voted with the mayor on every budget item save for the Parks and Forestry and Library budgets. That’s not blind adherence but pretty solid support. In turn, when Councillor Colle’s motion came to a vote, a motion, let me add, that bore no financial impact on the budget, it just asked for a report on front yard parking fees and was shepherded through with the help of Councillor Cesar Palacio, a councillor plucked out of well-deserved obscurity owing solely to his slavish devotion to the mayor, it lost by one. You know who voted against it? Mayor Ford.

When the results were announced, catcalls could be heard directed at Councillor Colle. “They’re not your friends, Josh!” Through either neglect, political expediency or (and I’m unwilling to tar the mayor with this yet) pure spite for not toeing the line absolutely, Mayor Ford hung the new councillor out to dry. If one were the suspicious type, one might even suspect Palacio’s motivation for not stepping up and fronting the motion himself and risk drawing the mayor’s ire.

“They’re not your friends, Josh.”

Even in absolute victory, Mayor Ford sowed the seeds of future discontent although, given his focus purely on the here and now, he’s probably losing very little sleep over that fact. It’ll be interesting to see how he navigates more choppy waters when the political winds change (and they always change) and contentious matters like garbage privatization or transit matters come to council. When the mayor finds the atmosphere a little less friendly.

nuttily submitted by Cityslikr