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Chantal Hebert’s Big Buzz

The big buzz at the FCM today was keynote speaker Chantal Hebert, columnist for the Toronto Star and La Presse and commentator on CBC’s The National.

Hebert laid out what she sees as the four main stories over the coming year: the new government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Liberal leadership race, the Alberta “succession” (who will replace Ralph Klein) and Quebec politics.

Hebert suggested that Harper’s “main mission” would be to create what she called a “more disciplined federalism”. This means less of a federal role in social programs and a new fiscal arrangement between the three orders of government. She urged people to turn their attention to provincial governments, saying this is where the action is now.

National President Paul Moist cautiously agreed.

“This new reality will have some important implications for how we protect existing social programs and build new ones like child care,” Moist said.

Edmonton city workers Local 30 President Alex Grimaldi concurred. “CUPE municipal locals are going to have to be more aware of our provincial politicians as they will have a more direct impact on our jobs,” Grimaldi said.

Hebert also stressed the importance of environmental issues in the coming months, because of the Conservative government’s weakness on the green side.

She recommended that FCM delegates “go green” in their approach to lobbying the federal government, and focus on the environmental aspects of their most pressing concerns. This might motivate the Conservatives to take action.

“The Harper government is going to need the help, since at the same time it’s dropping international solutions to climate change and is widely seen to be too close to Big Oil,” Moist said.

Going Green

Environmental issues are getting bigger at the municipal level. The FCM works on climate change, waste reduction, water and wastewater treatment and pesticide use, among other issues of direct concern to CUPE members.

Notably, Federal Environment Minister Rona Ambrose cancelled her scheduled appearance as a keynote speaker. This is not the first time the minister has pulled out of scheduled public speaking engagements.

The Other Kind of “Green”: Municipal Financing

The good news coming out of the federal government is a new commitment to consult with municipalities before future federal budgets.

“This might have something to do with the fact that the Conservatives failed to elect anyone in Canada’s largest cities, but it’s good news nonetheless,” Moist said.

On the policy front, municipalities are still waiting for the gas tax transfer to be made permanent. And now, they are now talking about negotiating “new revenue sharing” agreements, instead of the previous Liberal government’s “New Deal for Cities and Communities”.

This includes exploring shifting tax “room” from the other orders of government to municipalities. For example, taking one per cent of federal income tax and redistributing it to the municipalities.

Harper’s federal tax cuts means less of an ability to fund municipal infrastructure, and, in theory, gives municipalities more “room” to raise taxes. But, municipalities’ ability to raise taxes is limited - their main source is property taxes.

“The problem is that raising property taxes is unfair, since they don’t grow with the economy and are regressive,” Moist said.

“It’s especially a problem for small and rural municipalities,” Moist said. “Many councils might choose to cut services and jobs, or hike user fees before they would raise property taxes, a politically unpopular strategy.”

Prior federal agreements to fund municipal infrastructure have often required municipalities to use money only for capital projects, not operational spending. This has councillors concerned, as funding is needed for both. Money for both capital and operational expenses would also reduce the pressure to contract out, helping keep services in-house.

How all of this will play out remains to be seen, Moist said.

“One thing is certain,” Moist said. “The tax shuffle and shell game can no longer take municipal governments for granted.”

Stay tuned to cupe.ca for more on the 2006 FCM annual conference.