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Why Ontario Liberals may have trouble stomaching Wynne's tax-hike pledge

Premier Kathleen Wynne is photographed in her Toronto office on Dec. 12, 2013.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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Kathleen Wynne says she remains as committed as ever to raising new taxes or tolls to fund upgrades to Ontario's transportation infrastructure. While refusing to tip her hand as to whether she'll adopt funding recommendations (including a gas tax of up to 10 cents per litre) made by a government-commissioned panel, the Premier insisted on Thursday that the province's next budget will include specific new revenue streams.

If so, though, Ms. Wynne will have to overcome some growing doubts within her own party. With that budget likely to trigger a spring election, Liberals seem somewhat less prepared to rally around her on this issue than they were after she won their leadership last winter – many of them expressing doubts about it in private conversations.

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A few factors that have emerged over the course of this year help explain their nervousness. Among them:

AN UNPREPARED PUBLIC

After she won the Liberal leadership, Ms. Wynne seemed to think that years of hand-wringing about GTA gridlock had preconditioned voters in that area to welcome decisive action to address it, even if that action involved lightening their wallets slightly.

Such enthusiasm may have been overestimated. Ms. Wynne seemed to realize, belatedly, that more preconditioning was needed, which helps explain her seemingly boundless enthusiasm for commissioning reports on the subject. In retrospect, a little more research – on public attitudes, not just policy options – might have been helpful to her earlier.

UNCERTAIN ENDS

A big problem with the preconditioning, or lack thereof, is that the government has struggled to get the public excited about what its money might buy.

Delayed gratification, in the form of transit lines to be completed many years down the road, was never going to be an easy sell. But it's been made all the tougher by politicians' difficulty in agreeing on what new funding should go toward, epitomized by the endless haggling over whether Scarborough will get a light-rail transit line or a subway, and where it might go – a worrying sign, since that's one of the smaller projects in the offing.

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A "downtown relief line" for Toronto is generally recognized as the top priority after ¬projects already in the works are completed. But ask even transit-friendly city-dwellers what that means, and you'll find considerable confusion.

In the rest of the province, meanwhile, there is resentment toward the idea of subsidizing Toronto's needs. The government has pledged that money collected in any given region will be directed toward that region's infrastructure needs, but such plans remain fuzzy as well.

EXCESS BAGGAGE

Ms. Wynne had hoped to quickly put the spending controversies that plagued Dalton McGuinty's final years in office in the rear-view mirror. It hasn't quite worked out that way.

Not only have the costly cancellations of gas-fired power plants remained in the news through much of 2013; they've been joined by recent revelations about excess at Ontario Power Generation, renewed interest in the scandal at the province's air-ambulance service, and assorted other reasons for Ontarians to be less than enthused by the prospect of giving their government more money.

Many Liberal MPPs are already hearing enough about these subjects from their constituents to be worried about their re-election prospects. So they're not all that enthused by the prospect of going door-to-door trying to explain why more money needs to be collected.

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COMPETITION FOR TAX DOLLARS

As if seeking new funds to pay for transit weren't sufficiently daunting, Liberals have to consider the prospect of asking for those on top of other tax increases.

In its fall economic statement, as the government signalled a shift away from "austerity," it hinted at tackling its roughly $10-billion deficit by also looking at revenues. Most notably, at least on the personal-tax side, it's considering tying property taxes that go to the province – which, unlike the bigger municipal share, have been kept artificially low – to the rate of inflation.

That would be entirely justifiable from a public-policy perspective, but could annoy voters in and of itself. That applies in particular to elderly ones on fixed incomes – a demographic that also might not be overly concerned with how quickly people are able to commute to work a decade from now.

A NEW CAMPAIGN TEAM

At the end of this past summer, backroom veteran David Herle was named as "managing co-chair" of the Liberals' campaign, effectively placing him at its helm. Sources say that while top officials in the Premier's office remain keen on the transit revenues, Mr. Herle –who doubles as his party's pollster – is less keen.

"There is no difference of opinion on any issue between the Premier and myself," Mr. Herle said when reached by e-mail on Thursday.

In any event, there is evidently no shortage of reasons for the people charged with getting the Liberals re-elected to approach this issue with some trepidation. While it will ultimately be the Premier's call, her commitment will be tested between now and next spring.

Adam Radwanski is The Globe's columnist covering Ontario politics.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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