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The Calgary Eye Opener

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Monday, July 19, 2004

A real threat to the Klein Government - Dave Bronconnier and municipal politicians?

Real opposition to Alberta's Tory government will not come from the Liberal or NDP or Alliance parties nor any political party. Real opposition will come from Alberta's dissatisfied municipal leadership.

Every municipality in Alberta, urban or rural, suffers from a constitutional inability to collect income or revenue taxes and royalties - municipal revenues are limited to property taxes. Alberta's constitution does not recognize municipalities as independent entities, makes them totally subservient to the whims of the Government of Alberta. This arrangement provides Government of Alberta bureaucrats with plenty of money to squander and plenty of power to wield and they jealously guard it. Premier Ernest Manning and Premier Peter Lougheed kept their bureaucrats on short leashes, always threw municipalities enough resource generated grants and local powers to keep them happy. Manning and Lougheed knew that dissatisfied locals could eventually unseat them. The Klein government has allowed provincial bureaucrats to have their way with local municipalities. Under Klein instituted education funding legislation, the City of Calgary must collect education taxes, then deliver the revenues over to provincial bureaucrats who take their cut in administration fees, add a little additional money, dole out the balance to local school boards. In rural areas, towns and villages provide infrastructure (streets, sewer and water, community facilities, industrial and residential areas) for the oil and gas industry. Often, because oil and gas fields are outside municipal boundaries, the municipalities providing infrastructure cannot collect even property taxes from the fields from which the provincial government collects massive crown royalties. The Town of Pincher Creek, for instance, provides municipal infrastructure for the Waterton Gas Field located south of the town's boundaries; the province collects an estimated $28 million from the field; the town receives nothing except a few government grants heavily administered by the Province. The Klein government has allowed provincial bureaucrats to centralize services to Pincher Creek's agricultural industry and so, come the BSE crisis last year, local cow/calf operators got only meager, red tape-wrapped handouts from the province. The federal government, at least, encouraged and expedited local efforts to build new meat-packing facilities. The province did nothing.

On two occasions in the past Albertans have ignored political parties and elected governments from leadership outside of established political parties. In 1921, under the leadership of Henry Wisewood, leader of the United Farmers of Alberta (a farmer's union which was actually opposed to political parties and Wisewood would not serve as premier) threw out Alberta's Liberal Government. The United Farmers governed Alberta until 1935. In 1935, Bible Bill Aberhart and the Social Credit League (which had been formed just a year before the election and which became a political party just days before the election) soundly beat the United Farmers. Don't be surprised to see an alliance of municipal leaders rise up, as quickly as the United Farmers and the Social Credit did, advocating the giving of additional taxation and revenue powers and constitutional autonomy to local municipalities. And what scatological disturber would lead such an Alliance? The Eye Opener thinks that Dave Bronconnier is the man.

Bronconnier is a thick-skinned, boyish dogged fighter. Calgarians elected Bronconnier mayor in the fall of 2001. Under his weak predecessor Al Duerr, city bureaucrats passed through City Council a reorganization plan ceding the government of the City to top bureaucrat, "Chief Executive Officer" Dale Stanway. Duerr, meantime, busied himself with trips abroad, golf at the Calgary Golf and Country Club and the obtaining of an MBA degree from the University of Calgary. When, in 2001, fearing road rage from voters frustrated by Calgary's neglected transportation system, Duerr retired to work for Caribbean mystery man Fred Baum, the bureaucrats and Duerr tried to elect Bev Longstaff mayor. But Bronconnier ran against her and beat her. Though City Hall bureaucrats shunned him, Bronconnier rallied, first, the people of Calgary, then, his fellow city councilors to a battle to recapture city hall. In 2002, spurred on by Bronconnier, Council demanded an accounting of the bureaucrats' disastrous East Village project - Stanway was forced to fire four underlings. In March 2003, Bronconnier persuaded council to nullify the Duerr era reorganization plan and to restore council's pre-Duerr powers. In October 2003 Bronconnier persuaded council to fire Stanway. The dogged Bronconnier fully controlled City Hall.

During his Liberal leadership campaign in May of last year, Paul Martin promised Canadian cities a share of the federal gasoline tax. Bronconnier determined to keep Martin honest, kept reminding Martin of the promise. Martin repeated the promise in September but this January, safely installed as leader, tried to renege. Bronconnier, a former Liberal candidate, hound-dogged the Liberals, kept nipping at Martin's heels. In early February, to appease municipal leaders led by Bronconnier, Martin fully rebated all GST paid by municipalities, saving Canadian municipalities $580 million per year. Not good enough, said Bronconnier, we want a share of gasoline taxes. By April, having decided to call an election in early summer, Martin promised a gasoline tax deal by year's end. Bronconnier continued to hold Martin's feet to the fire. When Martin visited the Stampede yesterday, Bronconnier cornered him. Martin (who does not like to say "no") unequivocally agreed to share the tax.

Bronconnier has also dogged chump premier Ralph Klein to give municipalities some of the Alberta Government's lavish oil and gas revenues. When, last week at a Stampede breakfast, Klein bragged of eliminating the provincial debt, Bronconnier pointed out that, to do so, Klein had incurred a huge "infrastructure debt" of neglected municipal roads and public works which should be repaid to Alberta municipalities by large slices of future budget surpluses. Egged on by his bureaucracy, Klein has denounced Bronconnier and is shunning him. Klein should remember the bitter experience of Dale Stanway. Klein may be creating a leader who and a movement which will see the end of him.

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