Should the TTC be an essential service? That's up to the city to debate, not the province, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday – a day after his government shot down a private member's bill suggesting the change.

McGuinty suggested the upcoming municipal election in Toronto is the ideal time for the debate. He urged mayoral candidates to take up the issue in their campaign before the October vote.

If the newly-elected city council decides the TTC should be an essential service, then – and only then – will the province consider making the designation.

McGuinty said he'd consider the move "very carefully."

Liberal backbencher David Caplan, MPP for Don Valley East, raised the issue at Queen's Park on Monday with a private member's bill.

Caplan says his private member's bill would have ensured an arbitration process be put in place immediately when there's a breakdown in contract negotiations between management and TTC staff.

The designation would bar TTC workers from striking and potentially save the city from commuter chaos. However, Caplan conceded that staff could always take illegal job action.

Critics say the move would force the city to renegotiate wages with public transit staff to a salary that is comparable to workers of other essential services -- all at a time when Toronto is strapped for cash.

Strike action and work stoppages cost the city about $50 million a day, Caplan said. The last time Toronto had to deal with a public transit strike was in April, 2008, when staff announced they'd be walking off the job about an hour before actually doing so.

Caplan, said he introduced the bill to appease the many consumers who have recently complained about service at the TTC.

Mayor David Miller said McGuinty should have stayed out of local politics, saying Toronto's city council has already spoken clearly on this issue.

Smitherman reacts

Late Tuesday afternoon, mayoral candidate George Smitherman released the following statement:

"There are valid concerns about the cost of arbitrated wage settlements that go along with deeming a service, such as the TTC, essential. But I want to applaud David Caplan's Private Members' Bill as it reflects an appropriate source of concern about the cost of a TTC strike to the city and commuters - there can be no doubt that work stoppages cause a huge disruption. I look forward to the debate continuing in the Legislature - including a full committee hearing with public consultations. Based on the outcome of that debate, we can have a fulsome discussion about the options the city might have in the future."

Smitherman and Caplan had been Liberal cabinet colleagues, with Caplan succeeding Smitherman as health minister in June 2008.

Caplan resigned as health minister just before the provincial auditor general released a damning report about the eHealth spending scandal.