Any new transit tax approved by Lower Mainland voters will be rolled into the existing provincial sales tax, with no substantial differences in exemptions and no extra bookkeeping for retailers, the province has told mayors.
"The province is prepared to support the implementation of this new revenue source, subject to the results of the plebiscite, in a manner which is as seamless and cost effective as possible for Metro Vancouver businesses and consumers," Transportation Minister Todd Stone wrote to local mayors this weekend. "For further clarification, this means that consumers would see a combined PST and [Metro Congestion Improvement Tax] totalling 7.5 per cent at the point of sale. We would not require businesses to separately identify the MCIT on receipts or invoices."
That unusually quick response from the province, which came only a few days after the organization representing local retailers raised concerns, is a sign of how anxious the province and mayors are to encourage a Yes vote in what will be a historic plebiscite for the country.
Lower Mainland voters will vote March 16 to May 29 on whether they support a new 0.5-per-cent sales tax to help fund a $7.5-billion, 10-year transit improvement plan for the region.
The plan, developed by the TransLink mayors' council last year, envisions a new subway along Broadway to Arbutus, two new light-rail lines in Surrey, one extending to Langley Centre, a new Pattullo Bridge, 11 new suburban rapid-bus lines, a third SeaBus for North Vancouver and a host of smaller improvements.
But planning for the plebiscite has been so compressed – the mayors only decided just before Christmas that it was a sales tax they would ask for in the plebiscite, not a carbon tax or vehicle levy – that everyone is having to campaign or try to get informed amid a sea of unknowns.
Now, at least, the province has cleared up one issue.
But there is still more to do, say those involved.
"This goes partway there," said Greg Wilson of the Retail Council of Canada, which has said it can't support a Yes vote until some of the problems are addressed. Two of the concerns – having a third tax on a sales slip and having to charge different taxes to thousands of products – now appear to have been resolved.
But, Mr. Wilson said, there are still many more.
Greg Moore, chair of Metro Vancouver, said nonetheless Mr. Stone's letter was a big move from the province to deal with major problems, and other details will be worked out.
Most of the region's mayors and a coalition of about 70 business, union, student and environmental groups are kicking into high gear this week to get the Yes campaign under way, as well as continuing to deal with the swarm of doubts.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner will travel in together on the SkyTrain from Surrey Monday morning to do an official launch at Waterfront Centre.
Mr. Moore said the biggest challenge for the Yes side is ensuring that every person in the Lower Mainland understands what they will be getting.
"I think we have to break down the plan to the neighbourhood or the city level," he said. "I don't get a lot of push-back on the tax that was chosen."
The other black cloud hanging over the Yes campaign is the issue of TransLink mismanagement – a theme that the No side has hammered, reminding people repeatedly, among other things, of fat executive salaries, exorbitant car allowances, a board that meets in secret and a two-year delay in getting a transit-card system in place.
Some analysts have said that if the No side continues to be successful in making TransLink management the unofficial ballot question, the plebiscite – which has only a 50/50 chance of passing at best – is likely doomed.