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What B.C.’s transit plebiscite tells us about voters and taxation

If voters are using their ballot to express views on other issues, allowing them more ways to vent democratic steam might solve the problem


 

TranslinkMetro Vancouver learned the results of the transit plebiscite on Thursday morning. The result: a resounding ‘No’ with only 38 per cent voting in favour. Previously in Maclean’s I explained the economics of the proposed half-point hike to the provincial sales tax that would have been instituted to pay for a package of improved transit across the region. Now that we’ve seen the results, I have two quick thoughts.

First, as an economist, I found this an interesting exercise in observing whether citizens were willing to pay more tax for better public services. Stephen Gordon has often written about the seeming reliance of political parties on taxes they think are paid by someone else, whether it is high earners, corporations, or carbon prices assigned to producers. This transit plebiscite appeared to be a direct test: higher taxes explicitly paid by everyone in order to fund better transit. A recent example where voters recently went along with such a plan is Ontario’s 2014 election, in which a key policy of the re-elected Liberals was a new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, explicitly paid for with higher payroll contributions. It’s not clear that the ORPP would have received support in a direct referendum, but taking a position in favour of more money for a government program didn’t hurt the Ontario Liberals.

Second, as an observer of referenda in general, this plebiscite reinforced my views on one of the challenges. Many voters in this 2015 transit plebiscite seemed focused on expressing dissatisfaction with items not on the ballot, rather than the actual ballot question. Most of the push against the transit package came from those concerned about the management of the regional transit authority, Translink. It’s reasonable to be worried about management practices at Translink and its governance model, but those problems can be addressed (or not) independent of whether we choose to pay more taxes for new capital investments. This result fits a pattern set by the 1992 Charlottetown accord and the 2011 British Columbia HST referendum, in which voters take advantage of what they see as a rare opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with other off-ballot policies.

UBC political scientist David Moscrop argued that direct democracy tools like referenda are inappropriate for such difficult decisions and should be left to delegated forms of democracy. That’s the conventional argument against referenda—voters can’t be bothered or trusted with difficult decisions. For technical questions like what grade of concrete should be used in constructing a new road, I’m happy to delegate rather than vote directly. However, I don’t think that it’s too hard for voters to understand a relatively simple question like whether we should pay higher taxes for a set package of transit improvements.

Another way to look at the problem of direct democracy is that we have too little, rather than too much. If voters are using their ballot to express views on other issues, we should consider whether allowing more ways to vent democratic steam might solve the problem. As a fanciful example, imagine the 2011 HST referendum ballot with two questions, the first asking whether premier Gordon Campbell should be censured for his pre-election statements on the HST, and the second question on the meat of the HST matter. With a chance to vent through the first question, it is possible that voters might concentrate more closely on the second question.

Of course, having multiple questions of this sort would open up a serious can of worms with manipulation of the ordering and wording of questions. But, the apparent desire of voters to find ways to express their concerns does raise doubt in my mind about Moscrop’s argument that we should reduce the number of chances citizens have to vote directly on issues, especially on relatively clear questions like tax-for-transit.


 

What B.C.’s transit plebiscite tells us about voters and taxation

  1. This article pretty much hits the nail on the head at least for me and many of my friends. It is not just the mismanagement of the transit but the Mayors and politicians in this area.
    Many of us are still burned over Surrey moving the Municipal hall and offices from a centrally located established facility to one up at the north end of the City which cost us an estimated $100 million and we have gained nothing. This is just one example of the way these clowns manage the tax money they receive. Cannot conceive of giving them more to waste on their ego trips.

  2. “Stephen Gordon has often written about the seeming reliance of political parties on taxes they think are paid by someone else, whether it is high earners, corporations, or carbon prices assigned to producers. This transit plebiscite appeared to be a direct test: higher taxes explicitly paid by everyone in order to fund better transit.”

    Exactly!!! Everyone is all for better transit, or carbon emission reductions, or more education spending, or or or, as long as someone else is paying for it. That was why the GST cut was so popular; people dislike actually paying for the services they’re using, and greatly prefer to make paying someone else’s problem.

    Whenever someone suggests increased spending on some program, or introducing a new program, they almost never talk about how to fund it. And, if they do, it’s almost always a tax increase on someone else. Hard to have an adult discussion on spending priorities when the mantra is:
    “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!”

    FWIW, I was one of the handful of people that voted in favour of the transit tax.

    • I don’t live in the area but I shudder every time I have to go into the Metro area. Fortunately the main routes to the Island allow one to cock a snoot at Vancouver. But as an old boy from the area who grew to adulthood with a rickety STREETCAR system, I do have a thought. I think a general tax to a specific end is bad. Transit is not used by everyone in the Metro area and there are a lot of the poor and aged who would never use it but probably be taxed on things that are essential to them.

      Also it would seem beneficial for some businesses or enterprises to move to where the people (workers) are, rather than trying to densify the core and pull people in from the outskirts as the costs of housing are so ridiculous. Where I live transit is my Toyota.

  3. I can’t say that this result is very surprising. Transit users will have voted “yes”, so that non-transit users would be forced to pay for a transit system that they don’t use. The obvious solution is if you want to build a better transit system, increase the fares on the people who use the system. When did the concept of paying for something you use become such a difficult idea for people to accept?

    • Because all of us are taxed for items we don’t use sooner or later. Local transit users don’t use interurban highways but we pay for them anyway.

  4. The article hit the truth – you can’t separate a specific tax from those that implement it. The landscape is littered with projects that the elites told taxpayers would cost one price and it turned into double, triple etc what was promised, or taxpayers were told that by investing in a downtown plaza renovation (Regina) would result in a more vibrant downtown – all it resulted in is mass confusion because the streets were re-routed, 25 street parking spaces removed and no more vibrant downtown (still dead after 6 p.m.).

    Too often politicians and bureaucrats are in it for themselves – hire more people so that I get an increased pay grade or build a little empire.

    People pay enough in taxes for what we actually get back. We may want better transit, but we no longer believe that the existing group of politicians and bureaucrats have a clue about what to do.

    • Really. People complain about taxes, and politicians reply with “Well, without taxes, you don’t get transit”… and then turn around and ask for more taxes to actually provide people with transit. It’s a helluva scam if you can get away with it.

  5. The largest problem right now is the high level of taxation levied by four levels of government, along with huge fees (taxes) from government agencies. That coupled with the ‘run away’ cost of living, and stagnated wage increases presents a problem.
    People are just taxed out!

  6. Economists have missed one of the values of automobile commuting, it seems to me. For the suburban family man, necessarily employed in an organization where he is an underling, that time in the car is his only opportunity to be neither henpecked nor gamma-dogged.

    This gives you a guy who votes Ford in Toronto, and against transit anywhere. Long, slow, and private commutes are the guy’s most valuable freedom.

    -dlj.

    • Only if he’s still living in the 1970s. And what about the family woman commuting to work. The poor sod on his/her long commute to work is still tethered to home base and boss by his/her personal shiny distraction device

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