At Rob Ford’s executive committee meeting last week, city councillors had a long (and long overdue) discussion about ways to pay for public transit expansion in Toronto. A staff report put a lot of options on the table: a one per cent city sales tax, a one per cent personal income tax, road tolls, fuel taxes, parking taxes, vehicle registration taxes…
So, which option, the mayor was asked, would he support? None of the above, he told the press. “There’s other options, and a P3’s the way to go,” he said. “I’m not going to implement a new tax or a new user fee.”
By “P3,” he meant “public-private partnership.” But, as the staff report made clear, such partnerships are just one method of building things, not a source of funding. It is as if, asked to name his favourite vegetable, Ford had answered, “Fork!”
Let me break down the terminology for you: A public-private partnership is a way of borrowing money from a private sector company that you also hire to build things. By definition, the government side of the partnership still involves paying the private company to build the infrastructure. And the government pays with tax dollars, which are, ultimately, the only real source of money the government has.
The episode underscored, yet again, the mayor and his brother’s fundamental financial illiteracy. (Another example: On the radio on the weekend, Doug Ford made an analogy comparing the city’s capital debt to household economics. “Do you go out and purchase a house… and not have the money?” he asked, apparently unaware of just how common mortgages are among homebuyers.)
What is interesting about Rob Ford’s parallel insistence that the city will build subways, the most expensive form of public transit, and that they will be built with no tax money or user fees, is that it crystalizes the foundational lie—the big one—on which the whole structure of his mayoral career is built.
Here’s the fantasy he sold the public: We can have everything we want, and it will cost nothing and inconvenience no one. It is a childish fiction, but once you look at it, you’ll realize it is the whole of Ford’s ideology, the premise of virtually every position he adopts.
We already have the lowest property taxes in the Greater Toronto Area, but Ford insists they are criminally high. (Because we’d all like to pay less money, right?) Yet he’s been equally insistent that when he cuts taxes or eliminates user fees, we will have no reduction in services. (Because we all like the services we use, right?) He insists that we can and should build subway lines into the thinly populated suburbs, where they are guaranteed to hemmorhage money for generations. (Because who doesn’t like to travel by subway?) For free. (Because that’s a price we all love!) And he thinks that making more space on roads for cars by removing other vehicles will eliminate gridlock. (Because who doesn’t want a less stressful commute?)
Each of these is a Santa Claus proposition. Even if they have no basis in reality, isn’t it nice to think they might be true? Since there is simply no way to make the logic of Ford’s intertwined assertions work together—you cannot have tax cuts without service cuts; you cannot have a subway without paying for it—he has simply manufactured a set of wholly imaginary boogeymen to blame for problems (“the gravy train,” “the war on the car,” fat-cat unions, and an NDP conspiracy) and a corresponding set of equally imaginary silver bullets with which to slay them (“efficiency,” “the private sector,” the steely resolve to “call a spade a spade”).
Here’s the truth: If we want good public services and infrastructure (and we do), we have to pay for them with tax dollars. If we want lower taxes (and we do), we need to stop building infrastructure and cut service levels. Finding the balance between those two competing desires is a difficult debate, one made easier if we acknowledge that no solution is entirely painless. The Ford lie that it should be easy—adopted as truth by many of his voters—just turns the discussion into nonsense.