Calgary city council will debate adding a question of their own to the ballot in the municipal election this fall.
On Thursday, the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee voted unanimously in favour of sending the issue, without recommendations, to council to make the final decision.
The question up for debate on Monday: “Should Calgary city council advocate for a fair deal for Calgary taxpayers from the Government of Alberta?”
The question references the city’s financial relationship with the province and how much money is sent to the provincial government through city property taxes.
“It’s very clear that municipalities and people who live in them are paying the freight to the provincial government (and) not receiving benefits back — the fiscal framework that was negotiated as part of the city charter was an attempt to address that,” Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said.
“However, the current UCP government appears to have abandoned that fiscal framework.”
Currently, the city sends a portion of property taxes to the provincial government’s revenues as part of what’s called an education tax. Some councillors have suggested a potential reduction in the amount of money the province taxes from that tax collection.
“The mayor and council are going to need to make this a critical priority whether or not there is a plebiscite,” Nenshi said.
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said the city’s ballot question is a direct shot at the provincial government, which has added a referendum on equalization as well as senate elections on the municipal ballot.
“This really is a shot at the provincial government (by) saying, ‘You’re going to put a referendum on a municipal election about a federal program — then we’re going to respond in kind,'” Bratt said.
“They’re trolling the provincial government.”
The proposed question from the province is “Should Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 — Parliament and the Government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments — be removed from the Constitution?”
Premier Jason Kenney said last week that the equalization program is unfair to so-called “have provinces” such as Alberta that have been massive net contributors to equalization, but are now experiencing difficult economic times.
Calgary’s mayor isn’t impressed with the question Albertans will be asked, and added it is “a ridiculous waste of time and money.”
“The question we thought we were asking is, ‘Should Alberta get a fair deal?’ The question that’s being asked is, ‘Should we not have any money flowing to those provinces to help pay for their health care and their universities?'” Nenshi said.
“I still believe that the Alberta government’s referendum question is crass politics.”
In response to Nenshi’s criticisms, the premier’s office confirmed the United Conservative Party platform included a referendum on removing equalization from the Constitution Act unless significant action was taken on pipelines and Bill C-69.
“It’s surprising that the outgoing Mayor would find a referendum on equalization payments a ‘giant waste of money’ considering between 2014 and 2019, Albertans made a net contribution of more than $100 billion to the federal government,” the premier’s press secretary Jerrica Goodwin said in a statement.
“I’d also point out that the referendum is being held concurrently with the municipal elections specifically to minimize costs.”
However, University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy research fellow Trevor Tombe said he isn’t convinced either ballot question would produce many results.
A “yes” vote would not change the equalization structure, and Tombe said both questions are strictly symbolic.
“It’s political initiatives to maybe achieve other objectives,” Tombe said. “These kind of questions are just achieving political ends — they’re not speaking to actual genuine policy reforms or improvements.”
Calgary city council will have the final say on whether or not to add their question to the municipal ballot at next week’s council meeting.
Calgarians head to the polls on October 18.
–with files from The Canadian Press