METRO VANCOUVER – Supporters of the "Yes" side in the looming transit tax plebiscite concede they’re fighting an uphill battle but are urging Lower Mainland residents not to vote "No" out of spite.
According to an Insights West online poll conducted from Feb. 12 to 14, the majority (53 per cent) of respondents would vote "No" in the mail-in ballot to be conducted between March 16 and May 26.
Among the most common reasons cited for not supporting the tax, arguments include that it’s regressive and will hurt the working poor the most and that TransLink is too irresponsible to handle the money.
But according to a paper authored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the progressive think tank argues all $7.5 billion of new funding is earmarked for badly needed infrastructure and transit capacity and shouldn’t be rejected for those reasons.
"Our point is that’s not a reason to vote no," said Seth Klein, one of the authors of the report. "Vote ‘Yes’ because we need this public transit infrastructure and then let’s all join forces and make the tax system more fair."
Klein said it’s generally true the tax is regressive – meaning it will affect a greater percentage of income for lower income earners than it will higher income earners – but can be mitigated through government tax credits.
He said the CCPA fought with the BC NDP when the carbon tax was introduced in 2008 because they supported the idea of carbon pricing but admitted the regressive tax would hurt low income residents. But when the province brought in a low income tax credit for the first two years of the tax, Klein said it helped ease the transition.
Similarly, the CCPA argues the province could offset the transit tax burden to low income earners by increasing the PST credit, carbon tax credit or by extending TransLink’s UPass to low income earners.
"Because then you’re not only directly addressing the affordability challenges of low income families, but you’re also helping improve people’s mobility," he said.
Klein added that in assessing whether a tax is regressive or progressive it’s important to look beyond revenue and see where the money is being allocated. In this case, he said low income earners benefit the most from the tax because they particularly rely on public transit.
But Jordan Bateman of the B.C. wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and unofficial leader of the "No" vote, said it’s sad to see the CCPA support an organization that pays its CEO more than $400,000 a year.
Bateman said the CCPA report failed to explore how $7.5 billion might be better invested into other priorities, such as tax cuts, daycare, health care or education.
"Pick whatever your personal favourite political priority is," he said. "Chances are this would be a lot better for a lot more people if it was invested in that than a wasteful organization like TransLink."
Bateman said that TransLink has to be fixed and public confidence restored before it can be trusted with the sort of money being talked about in the Mayors’ Plan. He added many transit improvements could be funded from within the existing TransLink budget if it wasn’t so wasteful.
There are a number of projects earmarked in the Mayors’ Plan that would directly benefit Surrey, such as $978 million to replace the 76-year-old Pattullo Bridge and three light rail transit (LRT) lines in Surrey ($2 billion).
But Bateman said the Pattullo Bridge will be replaced regardless of the choice of voters in the plebiscite. Like other recent bridge projects in the Lower Mainland such as the Golden Ears and Port Mann, road tolls are expected to fund any replacement.
"Surrey residents are being asked to basically approve two taxes," noted Bateman.
"The sales tax and the Pattullo Bridge toll."
He said Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner already stated she has a "Plan B" for building LRT in Surrey should the plebiscite fail.
"So there’s no reason for Surrey residents to send 31 cents of every dollar to the Arbutus SkyTrain project, which is what this tax proposes to do."
Klein admitted TransLink "isn’t making it easy" for the "Yes" side with reported executive salaries of $35,000 a month.
"There’s a whole list of grievances people rightfully have with TransLink and the CEO stuff drives me crazy as well. But the problem is you tally up all of those things and they’re a fraction of what’s on offer here in the Mayors’ Plan."
Klein said voting "No" will make people feel better for five minutes, but will cause 10 years of headaches because of congestion and poor transit service.
The CCPA report notes California has a history of failed referenda but as a consequence there’s a legacy of underfunded infrastructure. The CCPA has instead called for a fair tax commission where people can deliberate about how best to allocate taxpayer money as a whole.
Klein said without any context most people would say "No" to a direct increase to the sales tax, but suggested that if it was bundled in conjunction with an increase in services and a tax hike on the wealthy people might be more open to the idea.
"But these one-off referenda questions don’t give us a chance, and I think the ‘No’ campaign is tapping into that."