News  ASSÉ protests possible fee hike

User fees for public services expected as province deals with financial squeeze

Faced with a predicted budget deficit of almost $5 billion, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has only two months to determine how he will deal with the looming budget crisis facing the province.

With the annual budget due in April, the province’s plan to deal with the deficit remains unclear. Charest has said that he will not be driven to raise taxes. However, groups across the province remain concerned about the possibility of cutbacks and increases in fees for public services.

Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), a Montreal-based organization of over 15 Quebec collegiate and university student associations, has assembled a coalition to oppose the possibility of increases in the cost of public services.

La Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation is opposed to any increases in the costs of public services that will limit their affordability for low-income peoples.

Jacques Delorme, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance, has commented that the government is currently involved in a pre-budget consultation, and that no decisions have been made. However, the Ministry of Finance has released documents from the Advisory Committee on the Economy and Public Finances that point to possible changes in the provision of public services.

The document recommends the “more extensive application of user fees” as a better way to fund services offered by the province, and refers to Ontario’s increase in user fees as an example. Ontario’s revenue from user fees in 2007-2008 was $6.8 billion more than Quebec’s. The ministry has also said that an increase in user fees will “foster good behaviour” in the use of public services.

This is, however, precisely the kind of solution groups like ASSÉ are concerned about. According to ASSÉ spokesperson Christian Pépin, a day of action is scheduled for April 1, which will “mainly be organized through protests in the streets of Montreal.”

ASSÉ has called for a “shift in taxation for people with higher revenues,” and expressed anger that there are “more than 150,000 businesses in Quebec [that] are not paying one cent of tax,” leaving citizens to make up the deficit.

The province held an economic forum earlier this month called Rencontre économique 2010, which brought together governmental officials and provincial business leaders. The two-day forum was initially supposed to examine the province’s immediate financial situation, but instead focused on long-term economic developments, such as plans for the growth of green energy in Quebec.

Pépin, who was among ASSÉ members in attendance at the economic forum, called the event a “diversion,” noting that the ASSÉ attended in hopes of taking a stand on the privatization of public services, an issue that he felt was glossed over during the forum’s discussions.