Andrea Horwath is calling on the provincial government to hit the pause button on its massive modernization of gaming in Ontario to allow cities across the province to hold referendums.
The NDP leader filed a motion at the Ontario legislature last week directing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) to hold off on any decisions about new casinos until cities can add a referendum question to the 2014 municipal election ballot. It’s the exact scenario proposed by Hamilton city councillors before the OLG announced it needs a decision by the end of the year.
“The December deadline is a false deadline. It’s being imposed by a rogue government agency that has decided to pit communities against communities in an undemocratic process to try and site casinos,” Horwath said at a media conference at City Hall Wednesday.
“This is the responsibility of the provincial government to ensure that a proper process takes place. It shouldn’t be up to the OLG to decide whether or not the people of this province have a democratic voice in this decision-making process.”
But the OLG says Horwath’s plan would jeopardize millions of dollars worth of potential revenue expected to come from the agency’s overhaul.
“We want to ensure that we can keep this process moving, because when the final facilities are open … that’s when we hope to add that extra billion dollars to what we give to the province,” said OLG spokesperson Tony Bitonti. “The longer it takes to finalize all of these processes, the longer it will take to add that contribution.”
The OLG’s massive modernization, announced earlier this year, includes plans for a single casino in the Hamilton/Burlington area. It’s still not clear whether that means Flamboro Downs will stay open or whether a new facility will be built downtown, on the waterfront, or in another location.
Councillor Sam Merulla made the original suggestion to hold off on a decision about a casino in Flamborough until a 2014 referendum. He said Horwath’s motion gives a big boost to municipalities such as Hamilton, whose request for a referendum was quashed by the OLG’s tight timelines.
“It does give us a great deal of credibility moving forward,” said Merulla, who hosted Wednesday’s event along with Horwath. “I’m just pleased that there’s a possibility still, from a political perspective as a result of Andrea’s leadership, that it can become a reality.”
But other local politicians weren’t as pleased about Horwath’s City Hall media conference.
Ancaster-Flamborough-Dundas-Westdale MPP Ted McMeekin says Horwath isn’t respecting the decisions of the city’s new gaming subcommittee, which voted Tuesday to pursue public forums and telephone polls to gauge the public’s interest in a new casino.
“If her fundamental concern is being consultative around a fundamental issue, she might want to start with her own mayor, particularly when there’s a subcommittee put in place to review those recommendations,” McMeekin said. “It’s a convoluted issue and I think she made it more convoluted today. It would have been handy if she had spoken to the mayor or the cochair of this subcommittee.”
Mayor Bob Bratina, the chair of the gaming subcommittee, and Councillor Robert Pasuta, its cochair, both confirmed Horwath did not contact them before holding her announcement in council chambers.
Still, if Horwath’s motion gains the support of Leader Tim Hudak and the Conservatives, the minority Liberal government would have no choice but to delay the OLG’s modernization.
Although Horwath has yet to formally ask the Conservatives to support her motion, the Conservatives are onside philosophically. Last spring, Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton introduced a private member’s bill that would require municipalities to hold referendums before making decisions about a casino.
McNaughton said his bill passed second reading with a 57-19 vote. Six Liberals, including Minister Jim Bradley, were among those who voted in favour.
However, the Conservative MPP argues the bill is purposely delayed to allow the Liberals to move forward with the OLG modernization, unencumbered by referendums.
“A bill is the only thing that’s going to force referendums to be held,” he said. “A motion isn’t going to cut it.”
Hudak forwarded all questions about Horwath’s motion to McNaughton.