#onpoli newsletter: How do mayors spell relief?

Figuring out how to spend $4 billion
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 28, 2020
Premier Doug Ford speaks with Association of Municipalities of Ontario president Jamie McGarvey (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

Premier Doug Ford has announced that Ontario municipalities will receive $4 billion in total funding from the federal and provincial governments. How will it be spent? In this week’s #onpoli newsletter, podcast hosts John Michael McGrath and Steve Paikin take a look at what’s ahead.

John Michael McGrath: Until recently, the veritable firehose of money spraying out of Ottawa to people and businesses to manage the economic impacts of the pandemic was leaving one group of distressed parties decidedly unsoaked. The towns and cities where Canadians live are facing enormous financial pressures because of COVID-19 (over a billion dollars missing in Toronto’s budget alone) but neither the federal government nor the provinces were anywhere to be seen. That changed two weeks ago, when the prime minister and premiers announced a “safe-restart agreement” amounting to $19 billion in federal money dedicated to numerous public-health measures and relief for municipalities and transit systems. Well, yesterday we finally learned some of the details: $4 billion in joint federal-provincial aid will flow to Ontario municipalities, with $2 billion of that dedicated specifically to transit. Given that municipalities had started to get positively frantic about the need for money, and fast, this has got to be a major relief for mayors and councils around the province.

Steve Paikin: No doubt. And as welcomed as this announcement is, let's also read the fine print. The money from the feds to the province hasn't flowed yet. And therefore, no money will flow to Ontario's 444 municipalities for a few weeks yet. With transit systems seeing as much as a 90 per cent drop in ridership, it's a desperate financial situation for them. So our political leaders really have to get those i's dotted and t's crossed as quickly as possible. Now, before we go any further, please tell me you weren't one of those “yahoos” (as Premier Doug Ford called them at his daily briefing yesterday) who were at those 200+ people parties in Brampton the other day? Can you believe that? 

John Michael: Ha, no, I was not visiting anyone in Brampton this weekend. That story is astonishing. I’m amazed someone thought they could get away with it, honestly. The chutzpah to hold a party with hundreds of people and assume that your neighbours would just… what? Let it slide? People notice when dozens of strangers show up on a block in their cars. It’s bananas.

Man speaking at a microphone
Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaks about COVID-19 (Nathan Denette/CP)

On a slightly less maddening note, we’re also being told to expect the province’s school re-opening plan either today or sometime later this week, as Minister of Education Stephen Lecce will (finally!) tell parents and educators how or if the province expects students to return to class in September. That, too, could end up being an announcement of billions of dollars in new spending. We went through a period earlier in the pandemic where it seemed like every other day there was a billion-dollar announcement from the prime minister; I can’t help but think it’s now the turn of the provinces.

Steve: Well, apropos of that, invariably during these times, the prime minister and the premier have a virtual monopoly on the funding announcements that get made. But I was interested to see that the Ontario Liberals did something rather clever yesterday. They pitched a $3.2-billion schools opening plan with plenty of detail on how much it would cost to hire new teachers, rent new buildings, add new caretakers, etc. The gist of it was, if the government is going to drag its feet on unveiling its plan to get schools open, then we'll tell you how we'd do it. Given how hard it is for any opposition party to get attention during this pandemic (particularly one with only eight MPPs), I thought that was a smart, attention-getting announcement. 

John Michael: Neither you nor I can really vouch for the accuracy of the numbers in the Liberal plan, but my initial reaction when I read the proposal on Monday was that the numbers seemed to be in the right order of magnitude. By which I mean you probably can’t do anything like a substantial expansion of classroom space and hiring new teachers (even temporarily) without it costing billions of dollars. Even in normal times, education is a $30-billion-plus line in Ontario’s provincial budget, and urgently trying to find more classroom space and more people to put in those classrooms is naturally going to cost quite a bit. That said, I would be surprised if the plan coming from the government this week looks very much at all like what the Liberals are proposing.

Steve: Let's pick up this conversation later in the week on the #onpoli podcast. We'll fire one up for Thursday evening and get everyone up to speed on the week that was at Queen's Park.

Just a reminder...

Want to know more? Check out the latest episode of #onpoli for more on Ontario's latest COVID-19 developments.

Have thoughts on the show? Tell us what you think at onpolitics@tvo.org

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