How do we contain the size of an ever-expanding government sector and make it more responsive to the people, who are supposed to call the shots? The history of money bylaws in the City of Winnipeg provides an object lesson. The use of this mechanism at the municipal level is a demonstration of “direct democracy,” the kind of decision-making where contentious public issues are settled at the ballot box rather than by elected officials.
In the civic election of 1899, two questions appeared on the ballot, placed in referendum by the previous administration. The question asked whether or not the City should spend money to establish two facilities—a hay market and a crematorium. Was the crematory perhaps designed for horses that were dropping dead because they didn’t get enough hay? We only know that voters approved it, while it’s uncertain the hay market went ahead.
In subsequent years—until 1968, when the last such measures appeared on the civic ballot in Winnipeg—hundreds of questions were put to a vote. In some years, as many as fifteen referenda were offered up. The particulars varied widely, in terms of both the size of projected spending and the importance of the issue they addressed.
Some of the referenda had nothing to do with spending money at all. In 1927, for instance, the people decided they wanted nothing to with daylight savings time, and they confirmed that in 1937. They then voted twice, in 1946 and 1949, to adopt it. Why twice to approve? It’s been said that the province of Saskatchewan never adopted daylight savings time because farmers were afraid it would confuse their milk cows. Somebody here must have been unhappy enough about the first approval to force it back on the ballot.
In 1927 and 1929, voters were asked where they wanted to have a summer exhibition site, with River Park winning the first time and Kildonan Park the second. The site at Jarvis and Sinclair never won, no doubt for the same reason that few tourists patronize that neighbourhood today. In 1950, the people approved by a wide margin the sale of coloured margarine. Since that condiment is still forbidden in the province of Québec, the result is perhaps a testimonial to the comparatively progressive natures of Manitobans.
Non-money bylaws also were employed to trim religion-based protection for the Sunday holiday. In 1902, a measure to permit streetcar services on Sunday went down to defeat. We declined in 1955 to allow professional sports events on Sunday, but in 1960 we changed our minds about that. Two years later, we decided to permit entertainment like Sunday movies, and two years after that, it became legal to mount theatrical performances on the Sabbath. But our morals weren’t slipping all at once. In 1964, the same year as we legalized Sunday theatre, we refused to let billiard parlours operate on that day. Not until 1968, in the final year that voters were allowed to use money bylaws, did pool halls get the green light.
If you thought the Province of Manitoba, through the City of Winnipeg Act, always dictated the terms and conditions of city government, you would be wrong. As early as 1913, citizens voted on the length of the term in office for city councillors. In 1931, the first inklings of modern urban planning emerged, as voters decided who would compose the new City Planning Commission. If you need proof of the wisdom of the electorate, that measure provides it. The choice was between
The second choice—the one with the majority controlled by private citizens with no stake in the outcome—won the day. In 1940, voters even got to decide the conditions for suffrage, which extended to all British subjects over the age of 21.
But these bylaws governing social standards and process were the exception. Most of them dealt with proposals for specific spending projects, which rather neatly divide into three categories: health and safety, recreation and infrastructure. Throughout the history of money bylaws, voters almost always passed the measures for the first two, health and safety and recreation. Infrastructure was another matter.
At the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg was awash with new immigrants, and the city was going through a series of booms in growth that made housing tight. Those conditions were perfect for the spread of diseases, and in those days there were few miracle cures like vaccines and antibiotics to stop their spread. The crematorium approved in 1899 was a macabre manifestation of this, as were the isolation hospitals approved in 1903, 1910, 1913 and 1918, and the morgue underwritten in 1910. In that year, citizens also approved the construction of a tuberculosis hospital. Public baths intended to delouse and sanitize newcomers always passed on the first ballot. Most bond issues to fund hospitals also succeeded. Close to the same thing happened with fire halls and police stations. Examples exist where such endorsements were denied, but most were quickly approved.
This history reflects some sound values on the part of citizens. Although parks and recreation facilities did not garner that level of support, they came close. People appreciate and want open, green spaces and, most of the time, are willing to pay for them. Bond issues for the construction of public schools also met with almost universal approval, a reflection of the strength of that public value. Stadiums and arenas did not fare so well.
The rest of the general category of “infrastructure” was also a different matter. They included things like gas works, electricity lines and power plants, water and sewer lines, streets roads and bridges, underpasses and overpasses. What we now call the Disraeli Freeway, connecting downtown with East Kildonan, was turned down twice before it was finally approved. The Maryland Bridge passed on the first try, in 1920, but the decision was as narrow as they get, by one vote, after a recount. Many citizens wanted another bridge to extend Arlington Street over the Assiniboine River. But in 1929 the voters said, “No.” Almost every major connection over the rivers and over and under railway yards had to be put on the ballot more than once before it passed.
Why is this important? It is almost a tautology that it is easier to spend other people’s money than it is your own. Politicians like to cover themselves with glory, and large, expensive projects they can cite as monuments to the importance of their tenure are good for their egos. But to those of who have to pay for these monuments, whether or not we can afford it matters a lot. The flip side of that coin is also germane. Money bylaws offered politicians cover for their ambitions. After the people had approved a spending project, there was never any doubt that its proponents had acted for the public good. Not only that, it required that politicians hone their rhetorical and argumentative skills to convince the rest of the city that the project was worthwhile.
The proof of those assertions lies in what happened after Ed Schreyer’s NDP government abolished money bylaws in 1972, along with the legislation that merged all the various municipalities that formed Winnipeg into Unicity. During the free-spending years that followed, the City racked up more than a billion dollars in debt. Freed from the constraint of voter approval, civic politicians slipped into the mode of “buy now, pay later.” Every time drivers hit a street full of the Winnipeg potholes now infamous across Canada, they should remember why the City doesn’t have the money to repair them in a timely manner. They had to cut back on repairs because they’re still making interest payments on the debt wracked up after we stopped using money bylaws.
Beyond acting as a check on runaway spending, money bylaws also could speed up the process for civic improvements. In 1954, the old Ampitheatre at Broadway and Osborne Street in downtown Winnipeg was condemned, and the City wanted to build a new sports arena. A month later, they asked the voters to approve the borrowing of two million dollars for that purpose. It passed by 11,500 votes for and 7,500 votes against, and opened to the public 18 months later.
That quick response should be contrasted with the convoluted, contentious and lengthy process Winnipeg endured more recently over the razing of the former Eaton’s store at Donald and Portage and the subsequent construction of the new MTS Centre. Compared to all that angst, money bylaws provided a cleaner, more transparent method of settling divisive issues, a way in which voters decide such matters and not a few, well-connected people in back rooms.
Many other jurisdictions use direct democracy as a check on government and as an objective means to harness the consent of the governed. A good example is, Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR for short. That legislation dictates that the state make extensive use of plebiscites to constrict and direct politicians. If the state runs out of money and wants more, it has to ask the voters. If the state runs a surplus and wants to spend the money, it has to ask the voters. It works so well, that during the brief but nasty recession that hit North America four years ago, when almost every other state saw its revenues collapse and faced severe fiscal problems, Colorado did not. It sailed through without significant cuts in public services.
Money bylaws are now considered a quaint anachronism. But one could argue that Winnipeg was better off with them than without them. They can be messy, they can derail a lot of political ambitions, but they take power away from a favoured few who are virtually unaccountable and put it in the hands of the people.
Section 120 of the current City of Winnipeg Act still contains a provision for plebiscites. Unfortunately, it now says that “the Council may submit any question” to the voters, but only for “an expression of opinion” that “is not binding on the Council.” Twice in recent years, in 1990 and again in 1995, some Councillors tried to have money bylaws reinstated in Winnipeg. Both motions were defeated, of course, because once people have power they are usually very reluctant to give it up. Over the years since 1972, we have seen no end of grandiose and frivolous schemes put through our city’s Council system. We will continue to do so until we constrain and limit the ability of politicians to spend our money.
The history of money bylaws makes fascinating reading. It’s interesting that almost no measures were put to the voters during times of national emergency, like the World Wars and the Great Depression. Throughout other years, their history provides evidence of a vibrant and thriving democracy.
This report was adapted from a Frontier Policy Briefing originally delivered May 25, 2005.