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Canada 'One-cent now' campaign stirs big-city mayors to lobby Ottawa

Canada's big-city mayors yesterday joined Toronto's campaign for a one-cent share of the federal sales tax, but without pinning their cause -- as Mayor David Miller has -- to the next federal election.

In a unanimous decision, mayors from the country's 22 biggest cities called on the federal government to share one of six cents of the GST - or the equivalent of $5-billion a year -- with all municipalities.

"Sharing this revenue will allow cities to make crucial investments in the quality of their places and spaces," said Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier at a news conference in Toronto.

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Most, but not all, of the 13 mayors at the news conference wore Toronto's "one-cent now" button from the campaign kicked off in late February by Mr. Miller in anticipation of a spring federal vote now likely off the table until 2008.

Despite their common plea for a share of the GST - to pay for a yawning municipal infrastructure deficit estimated at $100-billion nationally - the mayors were not arm-in-arm on Mr. Miller's tactic to tie the "one-cent now" campaign to the next federal election.

After the news conference, Mr. Bronconnier said the push for a share of federal sales tax "is not tied to a provincial or federal election. It is tied to keeping infrastructure on the front burner."

Since last fall, when Mr. Miller made his one-cent pitch, worth about $400-million a year for Toronto, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has repeatedly rejected the idea.

Yesterday, in Question Period in Ottawa, Parkdale-High Park MP Peggy Nash of the NDP used the big-city mayors' position to call on the government to "finally act in the national interest and invest in the quality of life and competitiveness of our cities."

Lawrence Cannon, federal Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, replied "We are doing exactly that. We are investing in our communities," citing his government's pledge to extend the gas tax, worth about $2-billion a year to cities, to 2013.

After yesterday's news conference, Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien called the mayors' request "a good opening gambit to get the discussion going in a real and meaningful manner."

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But, he said, "realistically it will take three to five years to achieve the ultimate goal."

Mr. Miller conceded that Toronto is "being more aggressive than other cities" in linking the campaign to the next federal vote.

But he predicted that, as mayors joined forces several years ago to convince a skeptical federal government (then led by the Liberals) to share its gas-tax revenues with cities, so too will mayors work "collectively" to inject the one-cent campaign into the next election.

First, though, the mayors have to win support from local leaders at the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities this month.

FCM president Gord Steeves, who attended the caucus of the big-city mayors, praised their proposal for setting out "what is needed in the long term."

But he said FCM's current focus is to convince the federal government to adopt a national transit strategy and make gas-tax revenues a permanent funding fixture for cities.

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