Lobbing A Lobbying Bomb

I’m going to paraphrase about a hundred people who’ve expressed these exact sentiments, and if that makes me another Margaret Wente, so be it. cheatingIt’s a jab I’m willing to live with.

Here goes.

If all those Uber people were even half as passionate about other, far more important city issues as they are with accessing their inexpensive, on-demand, chauffeur service, Toronto would be a civic paradise.

That said, I’ve said as much as I want to say about the Uber debate. It’s already taken a disproportionately significant chunk of our local political discourse over the past couple years. Mayor Tory made it his key item to begin this month’s city council meeting yesterday, and it consumed every bit of the extended day to finish it off. For now. Always, for now.

People will argue that it’s simply a response commensurate with the demand out there for Uber. outofproportion45,000 people a day can’t be wrong, won’t be denied. A grassroots uprising breaking the death grip of the taxi industry monopoly, yaddie, yaddie.


Or, here’s another angle.

This Is How Uber Takes Over A City

“Uber’s made a name for itself by barging into cities and forcing politicians to respond.”

How, you ask?

A $40 billion value corporation (as of the article’s writing last June) with all the lobbying muscle that kind of money can buy.

Over the past year, Uber built one of the largest and most successful lobbying forces in the country, with a presence in almost every statehouse. It has 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the nation, at least a third more than Wal-Mart Stores. That doesn’t count municipal lobbyists. In Portland, the 28th-largest city in the U.S., 10 people would ultimately register to lobby on Uber’s behalf. They’d become a constant force in City Hall. City officials say they’d never seen anything on this scale.

“Uber makes the rules; cities fall in line.”

Bringing it closer to home here in Toronto, we all know that two of the mayor’s former campaign mucky-mucks, John Duffy and Nick Kouvalis, have gone to work for Uber, bullyone as a lobbyist, the other to do some polling. And it seems like there’s been a lot of Uber lobbying of the Mayor’s office leading up to this week’s meeting. According to Anna Mehler Paperny of Global News, “And the mayor’s staff met with Uber more than anyone else on this topic last year.”

But, you know, whatever. The various branches of the taxi industry are no slouches themselves when it comes to lobbying, and donating to municipal campaigns, and just generally getting this debate front and centre in a way that makes it seem like it’s the most important policy matter the city faces. It isn’t, not by a long shot. That’s just what effective lobbying does. That’s why lobbyists and lobbying firms get paid the big bucks.

None of this is news. I didn’t write and crib some 500 words to tell you something you didn’t already know. It is what it is.

Although, and here’s the kicker and the reason I wrote anything about this at all, after the Uber debate dies down, and perhaps today’s equally noisy matter of the proposed bike lane pilot project on Bloor Street gets settled, teeoneupthere’s an interesting little item going to council from the Executive Committee. It was deferred from the March meeting, and the oh-so-perfect irony of the timing of it is hard to ignore.

As part of some lobbying by-law amendments being considered, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong put forth a motion asking for a staff report on the question of forcing unions and not-for-profit organizations to register with the city as lobbyists. It’s been an idea, as Jonathan Goldsbie writes in NOW, kicking around since the establishment of the Lobbyist Registrar back during David Miller’s first term in office. It’s been given a new lease on life with the support of Mayor Tory, his deputy mayor and 9 other councillors sitting on his Executive Committee.

His [Mayor Tory] position is that there are groups that have vested interests in the outcome of council decisions that are not confined to direct financial benefit. This is about transparency, and our belief that the public should have visibility into the various groups that lobby city councillors on matters of public record.

This statement from the mayor’s office in response to the NOW article has made some of those “various groups” more than a little nervous. “STOP Mayor Tory’s attempt to force community groups to register as lobbyists. buildingawallSign this petition now!” tweeted out the shadowy NOJetsTO group who have used their deep pockets and sneaky loophole seeking ways to bully the under-resourced and hamstrung-by-lobbying-rules little guy Robert Deluce and Porter Airlines in order to stymy island airport expansion. Why? What do they stand to gain from keeping the airport just like it is?

Until they are brought to heel under the careful watch of the Lobbyist Registrar, we won’t clearly understand their motivations. We’ll just have to file it under: “not confined to direct financial benefit.”

But if I were a community group or social activist type, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though. My guess is, Mayor Tory’s eyeing bigger game, like the unions, who the motion mentions specifically. And even that may be reading too much malicious intent into it.

Maybe the mayor is really and truly trying to level the playing field for everyone down at City Hall. wolfinsheepsclothingAfter yesterday’s vote, and his and a solid majority of city council’s complete and utter capitulation to the ferocious lobbying and PR effort of Uber, he’s reaching out to give the grassroots a leg up. See? Lobbying works. Become a lobbyist. Access millions and millions of dollars to hire high-priced consultants, pollsters and glad-handers. Then, prepare to roll over your local elected representatives.

If an upstart company like Uber can do it, you can too, little group looking to… I don’t know, provide some extra affordable daycare spaces. Think big. Big Daycare.

Besides, it’s only fair. Otherwise, just anybody can drop a line or send off an email, demanding access to decision-makers at City Hall. That’s just not how things get done around here anymore.

blithely submitted by Cityslikr

Oh Yeah. The Budget. We Almost Forgot.

Largely lost this week in the most recent mayoral tumult was the release of city staff’s recommended 2013 operating and capital budgets. lostintheshuffleIs there a better manifestation of how the mayor’s ongoing circus sideshow stifles political discussions on any important issue? And no, that is a rhetorical question. This is the inevitable result of electing a maverick candidate with a sketchy history both personally and politically to office.

What also shouldn’t be surprising, given such a tenuous grasp on his job, is how little of an impact Mayor Ford seems to have had on the 2013 budgets. Overall gross expenditure is up, albeit modestly. There’s a slight property tax increase with no sign of any sort of rollback on an item like the Land Transfer Tax. The mayor’s biggest contribution so far seems to be in getting his budget chief, Councillor Mike Del Grande, put on the Toronto Police Services board in order to try and cut away of its numbers.

Which is a necessity this year since balancing the city’s operating budget hinges currently on a $21 million reduction in the police budget. That road already seems somewhat rocky with news that the police union is threatening legal action if budget cuts result in any layoffs. Administrations with much stronger support have difficulty facing off against the TPS. It’s hard to see how such a rudderless one can.

There are, though, Fordian echoes of budgets past in the 2013 documents. woundedpreyThe 0%, across the board freeze edict to all departments acts most certainly as a de facto cut since any sort of inflationary increase will result in less available money this year. And to be sure, there are some notable outright cuts. Staff reductions at Fire Services and a cut to the TCHC subsidy. There’s an increasing reliance on user fees, $30 million in all including the TTC fare hike.

Budget 2013 also maintains the far-right fiscal view Mayor Ford possesses of financing governance mainly through reduction. That is, cutting your way to smaller government. The only real revenue growth to this way of thinking can come through user fees. You want it? You pay for it unless of course we’re talking about road ways as public space.

Like the Ford administration, the city budget abhors debt. Despite the infrastructure needs the city faces, the 2013 budget is driven to reduce the cost of debt Toronto pays out as if somehow this is a fiscally irresponsible course of action only the most desperate or financially dissolute would take. Manageable debt? Never heard of it.

The argument goes something like this: (from the pie chart on page 27 of the Operating Budget) Imagine the services and programs we could save if we eliminated the $415.4 million in debt charges we’ll be racking up next year. Pay down some of that backlog of much needed TCHC repairs. Hire more fire fighters and EMS workers not fewer. Eliminate forever that damned Emerald Ash Boer.

No debt, no problems.

The idea’s so fucking crazy it just might not work.

Because if we don’t take on debt, how are we supposed to deal with all the massive capital costs to build and buy the things we need or to keep the things we already have in a state of good repair? goodebtbadebtEven if we eliminated the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend to service the debt by, well, eliminating the debt we’ve taken on, it’s not enough to cover capital costs. This administration would have you believe a combination of two things. Savings and efficiencies and lowering our expectations will put us over the top, folks. Easy peasy. It’s amazing no one else has ever thought of it before.

The fact is, Toronto’s debt load is not onerous. Despite a recent uptick in capital expenditures owing to TTC expansion, population growth and just old, creaking infrastructure, the city will only nose up close to its arbitrary, self-imposed 15% of property tax levy debt ceiling in around 2017 before heading back down. With rates of borrowing currently at a historic low and no big spikes foreseeable in the near future, why the debt reduction fixation? texaschainsawmassacreIt only sounds fiscally sound.

And that pretty much sums up Team Ford’s approach to governance. The appearance of fiscal prudence while in reality little more than a ruinous attack on healthy city building. If increasing revenues and taking on debt are both ruled out of order, what other options are available? It’s elimination through the process of elimination.

Despite our focus elsewhere on the mayor’s shortcomings, this is the one that’s hurting us most.

discountingly submitted by Cityslikr