Charest government has put ideas on hold for now, but expect them to resurface

Rapport Montmarquette

The Lucids strike again. Yesterday, a government task force on user fees headed by two former members of Lucien Bouchard's famed group, Claude Montmarquette and Joseph Facal, handed in its report. (Businesswoman Lise Lachapelle also sat on the task force).
With their usual same condescension, they criticized what they call the "free-lunch culture" in which citizens are seen as dumb enough to think public services are free, unless they're made to see the light with higher fees.
The report goes even further than the 2005 Lucid manifesto that suggested increasing hydro and tuition fees by calling for higher fees on daycare, driver's licences and car registrations as well as tolls for some roads and mandatory water meters in homes and businesses.
Knowing that high-income earners would hardly feel the difference, this would leave the usual cash cow to be milked: the middle class. But not exclusively.
The report compares Quebec with Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, allof which have higher user fees. What they don't say is that average incomes in these richer provinces are higher and that income taxes are lower.
That's why raising user fees accross the board would reduce the disposable income of not only middle-income earners, but also of people on social aid and fixed incomes or low-wage workers. While the report suggests "measures to protect the least privileged members of society," the truth is that those are the people who couldn't afford waiting months for some government cheque to compensate them partly for their increased cost of living.
That is where the neo-con ideological slip of the task force shows. It also does in this passage: "The idea underlying the fee system is that the person who uses a service must also be the one who pays for it - the user pays concept - whereas in the case of taxation, the person who pays the taxes might not necessarily benefit from the services funded by these taxes."
This is where the report parts ways with Quebecers' preference that we pay for public services via more progressive taxes on income, rather than the more regressive user fees that apply regardless of income.
When the report says that the "user-pay concept" is good because the person who uses the service pays for it, it goes against another basic principle of social equity: That a public service be obtained based on "need," not on a person's "means."
The report repeats another classic neo-con justification for substantially higher user fees: "to influence the behaviour of users in the right direction." But what this does in reality is force those with less income to reduce their use of certain services or do without others.
In a lyrical pitch, the report presents higher fees as their gift to humanity: They "make it possible to reduce the wasting of resources, to protect the environment and to endure the sustainability of our heritage, while obtaining the necessary funding to ensure the quality of the service offered, enabling us to better live together." Oh my!
As was the case with the Castonguay report on health-care funding, the Charest government knew what it was doing when it went to Facal and Montmarquette, who is also a vice-president of the conservative think-tank Cirano. But with the same government now doing well in the polls and keeping an eye on the next election, it said no to most of Castonguay's, Facal's and Montmarquette's unpopular list of fee increases. For now.
Finance Minister Monique-Jérôme Forget said yesterday that higher fees were not on her radar screen. But the devil was in the details when she also promised to set up a "process" to study user fees and to table a framework law on the financing of public services and a new user-fee policy.
Now, if that doesn't tell you that fees are doomed to go up after the next election, whichever party wins, think again.

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