The Liberal hydro rate reduction program: sound policy or just a shell game?

The March 2 hydro rate reduction announcement by the Ontario Liberal government was widely compared to converting a 20-year personal mortgage to a 30-year mortgage. Your short-term payments may go down but in the long run you end up paying a lot more.

On March 2, the Ontario Government announced its latest package of initiatives designed to reduce hydro rates. The key initiative in the package (the re-financing of the Global Adjustment) was widely compared to converting a 20-year home mortgage to a 30-year mortgage and amounted to little more than a cheap accounting trick designed to bribe Ontarians with their own money. The re-financing initiative was the latest in a series of Liberal hydro initiatives that set aside sensible electricity policy and instead, embraced private-sector style financial engineering in order to pursue political – as opposed to policy – objectives.

The purpose of this post is to provide some context and analysis to the March 2 announcement as well as other recent Ontario government initiatives on the hydro file.

Policy Context

To achieve rate reduction, the Ontario government had three broad approaches to energy policy to choose from. It could have:

  • Dealt in a targeted way with the affordability challenges of those paying an unacceptably high proportion of their household income on home energy costs. This may very well have involved additional assistance for a good chunk of the ratepayer base but it certainly didn’t need to include an increased hydro subsidy for everyone;
  • Dealt with the “structural” inefficiencies that have contributed to spiralling system costs and therefore steadily rising hydro bills; or
  • Engaged in a range of complex financial engineering exercises that simply shift current energy costs to future generations of ratepayers and tax payers.

Clearly, a high profile measure such as the re-financing of the Global Adjustment (the key March 2 announcement) falls into the “financial engineering” category.

That said, the government has implemented several low-profile initiatives that deal directly with the real hydro affordability crises facing many Ontarians. Moreover, the government is beginning to explore some market design changes that deal with the “structural” inefficiencies that have driven up the overall costs of the system. Unfortunately, the perceived political need to dramatically reduce all Ontarians’ hydro bills in the short-term has won out. The result is that the more nuanced and targeted initiatives that address the real problems of affordability and unnecessary system costs are taking a back seat to the misguided (but splashier) financial engineering initiatives. Continue reading

Changing Workplaces: the coming mega-battle over Ontario’s workplace rules.

An interim report on Ontario’s workplace rules tabled many far reaching options for labour law reform including a new approach to collective bargaining aimed at smaller employers.

In the spring of 2015, the Government of Ontario initiated its Changing Workplaces Review to determine what changes, if any, should be made to the province’s labour laws in light of the fact that, in the government’s own words, “non-standard employment (which includes involuntary part-time, temporary, self-employment without help and multiple job holders) has grown almost twice as fast as standard employment since 1997”.

The specific focus of the Review is on possible changes to the Ontario Employment Standards Act (ESA) and Labour Relations Act (LRA). The ESA provides a minimum set of workplace standards that apply to all Ontario workers (albeit with many exemptions) while the LRA governs union-employer relations.

On July 27, 2016, Changing Workplaces released an interim report. The report canvassed a large number of issues affecting Ontario’s workplaces and provided a broad array of options to address each issue. For the majority of workplace issues canvassed, options presented included both maintaining the generally inadequate “status quo” as well as options that would significantly increase the protections provided to the province’s workers through fundamental and far reaching changes to the ESA and LRA.

In broad terms, the Interim Report:

  • concluded that there are “too many people in too many workplaces” not receiving their basic rights guaranteed under the ESA and LRA.
  • came to two general ESA conclusions: the administration and enforcement of the ESA should be strengthened; and there should be a comprehensive review and reform of exemptions from ESA protections. An example of the kinds of exemptions that the report is concerned about are the many occupations (liquor servers, etc.) that are exempted from ESA provisions related to minimum wage and hours of work.
  • reviewed what it deems a growing problem of employer misclassification of employees as independent contractors (and therefore not covered by the protections provided by the ESA or LRA), and the use of temporary workers (deployed through temporary help agencies, etc.) who are also not covered by many provisions in Ontario labour law. The potential options identified to address these problems include: expanding the definitions of what constitutes an “employee” and an “employer”; extending the ESA’s minimum standards to “dependent” contractors (a category of worker somewhere between an employee and an independent contractor); and reviewing existing ESA exceptions and special rules (including exemptions to overtime and hours of work).
  • examined a range of options that would support the enhancement of union rights, including the potential expansion of successor rights provisions to the contracting out of services, card certification (i.e. no vote required for union certification above a designated threshold of signed union cards), automatic access to first contract arbitration, and a possible prohibition on replacement workers (i.e. a ban on strike breakers); and
  • surveyed a number of issues related to termination of employment and severance pay. Significantly, one of the issues under consideration is whether the ESA should adopt “unjust dismissal” provisions, similar to those already in federal and Quebec legislation.

Although almost all the above interim report sections include options that would significantly change the rules governing Ontario’s labour market, perhaps the most surprising feature of the report was the prominence given to various options related to what the report calls “Broader-based Bargaining Structures”. This post will explore the debate on broader-based bargaining options  that the interim report has kicked off.

First, some background on Ontario’s current labour relations framework. Continue reading

Will federal tax review lay the groundwork for real tax reform in next budget?

Will a low profile review of federal tax expenditures lay the groundwork for tax fairness in the Spring federal budget?

Last Spring, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced that his Liberal government would be undertaking a comprehensive review of tax “expenditures” found in the federal tax code. According to Morneau, the aims of the review are to simplify the system and make it more progressive. In the process, he hopes to find $3 billion in savings. A panel of “external experts” was appointed “to ensure that the review is informed by a range of perspectives”.

While little known to the general public, the review is of enormous importance. Every year, Ottawa spends about $110 billion on programs such as health transfers to the provinces, the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, and other line item programs that comprise the federal budget. These expenditures, as with all direct spending, are put before Parliament for examination. Through this “Estimates” process, information on the costs and impact of these programs is available to the public.

Far less visible and transparent is the roughly $100 billion the federal government forgoes annually in so-called “tax expenditures”. These exemptions, deductions, credits, rebates and surtaxes are not subjected to the same kinds of parliamentary accountability mechanisms that are applied to more direct government spending. Moreover, many of these expenditures (including all exemptions and deductions), while legally embodied in the federal tax code, have huge implications for the fiscal situation of the provinces in that they also define the tax “base” against which all personal and corporate income taxes are levied at the provincial level.

Given the sheer scale of these tax expenditures, there is a strong argument for subjecting this hidden tax spending to the same oversight and public debate as any other spending. This is especially true given just how regressive (i.e. favouring the affluent) many of these expenditures are. If the government wants to provide billions of dollars in tax breaks to the richest Canadians, it should have an obligation to justify these gifts to the vast majority of Canadians who don’t benefit from such largesse.

The last comprehensive evaluation of the federal tax system was the Carter Commission of 1966. It’s clearly time to take a top to bottom look at our tax system to see if it is the truly progressive system the public deserves. Continue reading

What should be done to make Ontario electricity rates more affordable

There is far more that the Wynne government can do to help Ontarians struggling with sky-high hydro bills. But will they do what needs to be done?

It will come as no surprise to Ontarians that according to a recent Nanos Research poll, the cost of hydro was the most important issue for 20.5 per cent of voters, eclipsing the usual suspects such as health care (15.1 per cent), jobs and the economy (9.6 per cent) and high taxes (7.3 per cent). And it will also come as no surprise that recent polls suggest that the popularity of Ontario’s Liberal Government is taking a beating because of the issue.

Undoubtedly, the government is frustrated by the electorate’s focus on the cost side of the hydro file and its relative lack of interest in what the Liberals see as a series of environmentally friendly energy policies (the closure of the coal plants, the Green Energy program, increased “clean power” imports from Quebec, etc.) that have dramatically reduced smog days and made Ontario a leader in North America in fighting climate change.

But if the Liberals are puzzled by the public’s refusal to give them much credit for their green energy initiatives, they only have to look as far their crassly political cancellations of the Oakville and Mississauga gas plants to understand why the public isn’t cutting them much slack on the hydro file. Politics is nothing if not a blood sport and if you want political credit for making tough decisions on a file, then it is probably best not to engage in a billion dollar’s worth  of political opportunism (the cost of re-locating the two gas plants) on that very same file. After all, that’s a billion dollars added to the hydro bills of the very voters that were already paying for the elimination of cheap, coal-generated power!

That said, it appears that Kathleen Wynne has gotten the message  (high hydro bills are “my mistake”) and has promised to announce new rate reduction measures over and above the already announced 8% HST rebate. Continue reading

Justin Trudeau’s big infrastructure mistake

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It is a mistake to have private asset managers invest in projects funded by a new infrastructure bank expecting a return of 7-9% when the government can borrow long-term at 2%.

November 14 was a big day for the Trudeau government’s infrastructure plans.

In the afternoon, Prime Minister Trudeau attended a “summit” for foreign investors focussing on investment in areas like infrastructure, technology, natural resources, and renewable energy.

The summit was hosted by Blackrock Capital Investment Corporation, the world’s largest asset management company with $5.1 trillion dollars under management. All told, BlackRock brought two dozen of its clients to Toronto from around the world to meet with Trudeau. Blackrock clients include many of the world’s largest pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other institutional investors.

Cabinet ministers attending the event included Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr, Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains, Minister of Infrastructure Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly, and Minister of Health Jane Philpott.

Earlier in the day, the Liberals met with Canadian institutional investors such as the CPP Investment Board, the Caisse de dépôt , Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, OMERS, and Brookfield. Continue reading

What’s really behind Ontario’s rising electricity prices

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Ontario’s high hydro prices reflect a breakdown in the Ontario Government’s electricity planning process resulting in contradictory policies that add to costs.

On September 12, the Ontario Government announced in its Throne Speech that it was rebating the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) to residential and small business electricity users. The initiative is expected to cost $1 billion/yr. and is funded out of the provincial tax base. On September 15, Bill 13, the Ontario Rebate for Electricity Consumers Act, was tabled to implement the initative.

What the initiative means is that as of January 1, 2017, the Province will reduce residential and small business electricity bills by an amount equivalent to the 8% provincial portion of the HST.

 

Why the HST rebate benefits the affluent more than average hydro users

What is often overlooked is that the HST rebate provides a benefit proportionate to electricity spending meaning that the more you spend on electricity, the bigger your rebate. And, of course, the bigger your residence, the more you are likely to spend on electricity.

On September 27, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer (FAO) issued a report showing that the burden of home energy costs, as measured by share of income spent on home energy, falls more heavily on lower income Ontario households in spite of their lower overall energy spending. In 2014, the lowest-income 20% spent on average 5.9% of their pre-tax income on home energy, while the highest-income 20% spent only 1.7%.

Continue reading

What the New CPP Agreement Means for You

pensions CPP

The agreement  reached in Vancouver to enhance the CPP last week was historic in nature. Still,  some people will benefit far more than others. Many Ontario workers, for example,  would have been better off with the provincial pension plan that was abandoned by the Ontario Government within days of the signing of the CPP accord.

There is no question that Canada’s finance ministers reached an historic agreement in Vancouver on June 20. There is also no question that the changes in CPP design that the ministers agreed upon represent an eventual increase in CPP benefits for all workers when compared to the current CPP design.

That said, two additional questions need to be asked when assessing the agreement:

1)      To what extent are the workers most in need of a boost in their retirement savings getting the increase in benefits they need to truly retire in dignity and security. In other words, are the CPP changes agreed upon in Vancouver targeted towards those most in need ; and

2)      Are Ontario workers – who comprise almost 40% of the Canadian labour force – better off under the new CPP regime than they would have been under the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) that was scheduled to be fully implemented in 2019 – the first year of a 7-year phase-in of the agreed upon CPP changes that won’t be completed until 2025? This is relevant given that with the signing of the CPP accord, the Ontario Government moved within days to kill its ORPP initiative.

Background to the Vancouver agreement

Before answering these two questions, it is important to provide some context to the discussions that took place in Vancouver on June 20th.

The task for the finance ministers meeting in Vancouver was to see if there was a formula for reform that had a chance of getting 7 provinces containing two-thirds of Canada’s population (the amending formula for the CPP) to buy into. This was always going to be a challenge given that B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec had been clear in the previous federal-provincial meeting in December, 2015 that they had little appetite for any sort of CPP/QPP enhancement and Manitoba’s brand new Conservative government was almost certain to join this “sceptic” group. Continue reading

Medical assistance in dying legislation passes in Senate and becomes law

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Late Friday the Senate concurred with the Liberal Government and passed a bill that was more restrictive than many groups, including the courts, had argued for.

After an expedited vote in the House of Commons late Thursday, an amended Bill C – 14 (medically assisted dying) went back to the Senate for consideration Friday. The Government refused to back down on the clause that a patient’s natural death be “reasonably foreseeable” in order to qualify for medical assistance in dying – a clause that was removed by the Senate earlier in the week.

But in the end, senators deferred to the elected Commons and passed the bill in a vote of 44 to 28 late Friday.  The bill then received Royal Assent and became law.

As explanation for the Friday reversal, some senators said they worried about access issues without a federal law, while others believed safeguards would be stronger with the Senate amendments accepted by the government. And several felt it was simply not their place as an unelected body to effectively veto the wishes of the elected Commons. Continue reading

The fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage in Ontario

photo $15 macondlad's

On April 4, 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law which will significantly increase the minimum wage in New York  from the current rate of $9, to $15. The remarkable New York $15/hr. minimum wage victory contains many lessons for Canadian minimum wage activists.

 

On April 15, thousands of fast-food workers in more than 200 U.S. cities, and thousands more workers in other countries, including Canada, participated in a global show of force in support of a $15-per-hour minimum wage and mandatory paid sick days.

In the U. S., the $15 minimum wage campaign has made remarkable legislative gains in the past two years. In 2015, policymakers in 14 cities, counties and states approved $15 minimum wage laws including impressive legislative breakthroughs at the state level in New York and California.

In contrast with the recent U.S. experience, actual legislative victories in Canada on the minimum wage file have been extremely modest. Alberta’s general minimum wage increased to $11.20 from $10.20 per hour on October 1, 2015 and Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government campaigned on a pledge to hike Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018. The Notley campaign plank and the campaign promise by the federal NDP to re-instate a federal minimum wage and increase it to $15 per hour by 2019 are certainly encouraging as is Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s recent support for a $15/hr. minimum wage in Ontario. Continue reading

Uber in Canada: what governments must do to protect the public interest

16-03-29 Uber

.As governments across the country grapple with the implications of the so-called sharing economy, they need to remember that the interests of the Canadian public and the interests of corporate behemoths such as Uber, are not the same.

This is the fourth post in a four-part series of articles on Uber.

The argument in posts 1, 2, and 3 can be summarized as follows:  Uber’s flagship UberX service is unambiguously illegal in most cities in Canada because municipal and provincial taxi licensing law (British Columbia and Quebec license taxis at the provincial level) considers UberX a taxi service and Uber refuses to apply for a taxi licence for UberX under these laws. And it doesn’t apply for a taxi license for UberX because it does not want UberX to operate under the same rules as the rest of the taxi industry and incur the same licencing fee, insurance, and consumer safety costs that the rest of the industry pays.

Nor does it want its UberX service to charge the same regulated fares as its taxi competitors – it wants to be able to charge “surge pricing” which sometimes increases the fare for an Uber passenger as much as 10-fold over the regular fare.

In other words, while Uber is competing for the exact same passenger dollars as the rest of the taxi industry, Uber wants to play by its own rules when it comes to industry regulatory costs and fares.

Why? Simple – without its own set of rules that reduce its costs, the UberX service can’t afford to undercut the fares of existing taxi brokers – by far its most important competitive advantage. Put differently, Uber’s business strategy is simply a political strategy designed to pressure Canadian licensing authorities into creating a separate, cheaper set of taxi rules for UberX to operate under.

How does Uber justify having new licensing rules written just for itself – rules that significantly reduce its costs relative to the costs it would incur operating under the same rules that other taxi companies operate under? Why does Uber think it deserves special treatment?

In Uber’s public statements, it is its unique technology that sets it apart from other taxi services. Uber likes to advertise itself as a technology company that provides a “digital application service” to connect passengers to drivers. In other words, according to Uber its defining feature is that it provides a software platform that connects a customer with a service. And because it is essentially a technology company, unlike other cab companies, it needs its own rules.

The problem with this rationale is obvious – by now, many taxi companies employ Uber-like digital technology that puts drivers in touch with passengers (in addition to traditional phone dispatch). And it goes without saying that the established taxi industry doesn’t think a whole new set of rules are needed just so they can deploy their nifty new apps. Continue reading