Council notes: "tax reform" dead in the water

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[Note: Tuesday's 10-hour council meeting covered a lot of ground. I wrote about much of it, here and here, but should probably add a few notes. This post is about the tax reform issue; I'll follow it up with a post further exploring the sewage issue.]

"Tax reform"

Council spent fully two hours debating whether or not to have a future all day meeting to discuss "tax reform." If you think this sounds a little ludicrous, you're right.

Understand that when councillors received their council agendas Friday (which was also when the public and press could first access them), the "tax reform" discussion was agendized in a straight-forward manner: Five policy recommendations were put on the table, and council would vote on each. It was "shit or get off the pot" time so far as "tax reform" was concerned.

But by Monday I started hearing rumours that that straight-forward debate was going to be delayed, and sure enough, first thing at Tuesday's meeting, councillor Reg Rankin moved that council go into a future all-day "retreat" or "workshop" to discuss the issue in a less structured manner.

This proposal sent many councillors into a rage, and I don't blame them. Jim Smith, for example, complained that he spent many hours over the weekend reading through the agenda packet and checking his notes on "tax reform," preparing for what would be the most important discussion in his council career. "Had I known this would be delayed, I could have better prioritized my time," he said dryly, pointing out that some councillors were told of the delay before the weekend, and others not at all.

Smith's right to be upset; this kind of cliquish behaviour, giving inside information to some councillors and leaving others in the dark, is characteristic of council proceedings in recent years. Rankin should have notified other councillors of his intentions last week, out of simple courtesy.

Regardless, the desire for an all-day workshop stems from the recognition that the "tax reform" effort is becoming derailed. I find this fascinating, and to councillors' credit: the more they examine the proposals, and the more they think about the ramifications of those proposals, the more councillors are individually finding reasons to oppose them. Most of those councillors in opposition are not opposing "tax reform" for ideological reasons, but rather for pragmatic concerns about how it will affect their constituencies, and for concerns about general fairness---when they get into the nuts and bolts of the proposal, they soon find that many of the supposedly rational assumptions behind the various calculations are in fact arbitrary judgement calls, a fact that anyone who falls on the "pay more" side of the equation will immediately point to and condemn as unfair.

[You'll note that I put "tax reform" in quotation marks. I do this because I want to draw attention to the rhetorical ground that has been ceded to "tax reform" proponents-- how can anyone be opposed to reform? Reform is good! In reality, of course, the proposal is to completely scrap the existing tax system and replace it with something else entirely. You might agree with that proposal or not, but it has nothing at all to do with "reform."]

Still, even though many-- by my rough calculation, most-- councillors are now in opposition to "tax reform," there's not yet a consistent rhetorical or ideological thread shared by opponents. So Rankin and other proponents are hoping to use an all-day workshop to cajole the opponents into buying into the plan. Their hope appears to be that a workshop is more conducive to swaying fence sitters than would be possible under the tight rules of debate that govern council meetings.

But I don't think that plan will work. Already several councillors--- Jennifer Watts firstly, but backed up strongly by Gloria McCluskey and Tim Outhit--- have insisted that a workshop not simply consist of "tax reform" proponents bullying opponents. They want outside experts brought in to discuss the matter; McCluskey called for bringing in the academic economists I interviewed for my recent editorial opposing "tax reform."

In the end, council agreed to the workshop, but left open exactly who would attend, the format, etc. All this will apparently be worked out in that secretive agenda setting world managed by CAO Dan English and mayor Peter Kelly. But even if they try to railroad through an entirely pro-"tax reform" workshop, they'll get called on it, and that strategy will backfire.

To summarize: it appears to me that "tax reform" is dead in the water. And, good riddance.

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