More coverage of Ontario Votes 2011
CBC Ottawa

Rebate program faces the axe

UPDATE

Here's some new information on the post below, thanks to my good friends at the city. The reason cutting the rebate program would only yield a $125-thousand saving in 2011 is because it's costed over a four-year period. The estimated payout forecast for 2014 is $500-thousand. That's close to what the city paid out in 2006. (The actual figure was $503,333. More were eligible, but not everyone claims the rebate. In 2006 for example, only 54 out of 100 campaigns took advantage of the program. In 2003, the first year of the program, the payout was much smaller: $155,440, with a 68% participation rate.)

When the program was established nearly a decade ago, it was funded through the general election reserve. But the city never topped up the reserve to pay for the program. Staff say that can't continue. Last year they recommended creating a separate fund for the program. Deputy city clerk Leslie Donnelley points out the Election Reserve Fund -- and the mandate of the Election Office itself -- is to increase voter participation and turnout, not to level the playing field for candidates or encourage individula donations. Those are the goals of the rebate program, which is NOT what the City calls a "core election function." In other words, it's optional. And at budget time, council is hungry for options.

One final note of interest: Because Alex Munter's 2006 mayoral campaign relied heavily on individual donations (that's where he got 96% of his money that year), it accounted for more than half of the rebates doled out. Staff therefore consider 2006 an "anomolous" year, so the half-million estimate for 2014 may be generous. Then again, 21 of 24 councillors took advantage of the rebate program in 2010. The final numbers for the most recent election won't be in until after the filing deadline on March 25th.

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Buried amidst all the cost-cutting proposals in the 2011 budget is one item that won't get much attention until 2014. But anyone considering a run for a job on City Council should take note.

The city wants to eliminate the election contribution rebate program. Under the program, almost anyone who contributes at least $50 to a candidate's campaign is entitled to some money back. The size of the rebate is determined by the size of the contribution, and it's capped at  $187.50. That's what you'd get back if you contributed $300. Donate $100 and you get back $75. That's pretty generous.

The intent, according to the city, is to "encourages citizens to participate in municipal elections by supporting a candidate of their choice while learning more about the municipal issues affecting their day-to-day lives." It's also been argued that the program helps level the playing field at election time. New candidates need a boost to take on strong incumbents. It's a lot easier to build up a war chest when they can promise donors most of their money back.

I always thought this program was mandatory under the Municipal Elections Act. Turns out it's only guided by provincial legislation. It's a bylaw, and the city can scrap it whenever it wants. If it does, that will save taxpayers $125-thousand. That may seem like a good idea now, but councillors should ask themselves whether it will look so good in three years.

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