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Rules murky for TransLink tax referendum

A referendum on TransLink expansion, including potential new rapid transit lines, is expected by mid-2015, but what rules will govern the vote are unclear. - Black Press file photo
A referendum on TransLink expansion, including potential new rapid transit lines, is expected by mid-2015, but what rules will govern the vote are unclear.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

Proposed legislation on a future referendum on new taxes for TransLink expansion leaves major unanswered questions as to how the vote will be conducted, says one observer.

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he was stunned by how few specifics the province spelled out for the referendum in Bill 23, which will be debated in the Legislature this month.

"It's really the wild west," Bateman said. "There are virtually no rules in it whatsoever."

Absent from the bill is any concrete definition of the winning threshold.

It merely says Metro Vancouver mayors' council must demonstrate "to the minister's satisfaction" that a majority of the region's voters support the use of new funding sources to pay for the proposed package of transportation upgrades.

Bateman said it's unclear if that means a 50 per cent plus one referendum result passes, or if a higher threshold will apply.

Also unclear is whether a majority vote counted across the whole region would pass, or whether it must also pass in most of the region's 22 municipalities.

If the votes are tallied only as a region, Bateman said, it will unfairly give too much clout to the biggest cities of Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby and Richmond and risk a questionable result if it passes in those big cities but not in most smaller municipalities.

Surrey and Vancouver, which both want major new rapid transit extensions, together have nearly half the population of the entire Metro region.

He argued the winning threshold should be 50 per cent plus one regionally and also passing by a simple majority in two-thirds of the municipalities, similar to the rules for referenda run by Elections BC.

Instead, the very brief bill exempts the TransLink referendum from the regulations that apply in a provincial referendum.

Bateman said the proposed legislation is also devoid of rules on spending limits during the campaign, or of any definition of TransLink's role, including oversight of TransLink-issued information about the plan.

"One lesson of the HST referendum was the blowback the provincial government got when it was being too aggressively pro-HST," he said.

It's no surprise the legislation doesn't yet spell out what new taxes or tools might be used to fund TransLink.

The province is still considering the options, which include a vehicle levy, a regional sales tax and road pricing.

Meanwhile, Metro mayors are crafting the spending plan, which may include not just SkyTrain extensions and more bus service, but more money for SeaBus, HandyDart and West Coast Express service, as well as the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.

Mayors' council chair Richard Walton said it's difficult to draw up that plan without knowing yet how what sources the province would approve, subject to referendum, or the total amount of money available.

"We're no closer to knowing what may be allowed," he said, but added mayors are working in good faith on the basis the province will support use of a new source.

Road pricing might be pursued over the longer term, but not in the short-term referendum, which could be held by mid-2015.

Mayors fear the province will once again reject every potential new tax or levy except  higher property taxes, which city councils refuse to raise further for TransLink.

The blame for higher TransLink property taxes tends to fall on cities and come at the expense of their ability to fund more municipal services, while the province sees other sources as cutting into its own revenue streams.

"It's all about protecting tax room," Walton said. "So it's a little bit of a poker game."

He noted TransLink needs to raise an extra $200 million per year just to restore service to the levels of three years ago, never mind extra for major new capital projects.

The new provincial legislation allows TransLink to continue to raise three per cent more from property tax each year – about $9 million extra – without the mayors' consent.

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