MacPherson: No New Tax Powers Without a Citywide Referendum

By: Paige MacPherson

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Calgary City Council is currently mulling over a number of ways they could grab more of your cash to fund their transit plans. Some of them represent a major shift in the traditional taxing powers of Canadian cities, and all of them represent a major dent in Calgarians’ wallets.

On the table are a Calgary-specific sales tax, a four-cent-per-litre gas tax (weren’t Albertans just hammered with one of those?), a $144 per year vehicle registration tax, the likes of which was disastrously unpopular in Toronto and eventually repealed, and lastly, toll roads.

Fortunately, the province will be the final arbiter of whether to grant the city new taxing powers. But council should not ask any more taxing powers without first holding a city-wide referendum. Few if any of the current council ran on a platform of explicitly creating new taxes for Calgarians. Council needs the explicit consent of Calgarians before burdening them with new taxes or fees. 

Yet, this isn’t the first time the City of Calgary has asked for additional taxing powers. Former PremiersEd Stelmach and Alison Redford both told Alberta’s mayors that if they wanted new taxes, they should hold a referendum. No mayor took either premier up on this offer during the 2007, 2010 or 2013 municipal elections.

Will Premier Notley feel the same about giving Calgarians a say?

A quick read of the NDP platform shows that pleading “gimme, gimme” might be a good strategy. During the election, the NDP committed to working with Alberta cities to ensure mutual input on a ‘City Charter,’ giving cities “the tools to build the services their residents expect.”

“Tools” could mean a few things: more provincial tax dollars handed over to the city in future, or more taxing powers granted to the city.

In the province next door, the mayors of the 22 municipalities that make up the Lower Mainland (Vancouver-area) district are trying to impose a 0.5 per cent sales tax across the region to fund their own expensive transit plans. It would cost each household about $258 dollars per year, on top of the taxes they’re already paying for public transit.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark smartly told the mayors to get the consent of voters for this new tax. She would not approve a new tax unless the citizens agreed to it. Since March (ending on May 29th) voters in that region have been mailing in ballots to either approve or reject this new transit sales tax.

Ironically, those mayors are spending $7 million taxpayer dollars to push for the ‘YES’ side in the tax referendum – money that surely could be better used on actually funding transit.

But the more important thing is that a referendum is being held.

Here at home, Mayor Nenshi said he doesn’t disagree with the idea of getting consent from Calgarians, and other councilors too have acknowledged the need for people to have their say.

Instead of holding a ‘consultation period’ during which the city asks a select number of stakeholders what they think or puts a biased survey on a hard to find city website, council should truly listen to the people and voluntarily hold a referendum on these new taxes and fees. On this referendum ballot, one of the options must be “No” or “none of the above.”

Without the consent that a referendum would give, city council does not have the moral authority to impose new taxes, and the provincial government would be wrong to approve any new taxing powers for this purpose.

The ball is in your court, Mayor Nenshi and Premier Notley. Let the people have their say.

Paige MacPherson is Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

This op-ed was published in the Calgary Herald on Friday, May 22, 2015.

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