Daphne Bramham: Voters are people, not companies – Vancouver Sun

Opinion: A Texas company founded by a Republican mega-donor is leading a B.C. bid for voting rights for businesses and a shift of taxes to homeowners.

Author of the article:

Daphne Bramham

A Texas company founded by a Republican mega-donor is leading a B.C. bid for voting rights for businesses and a shift of taxes to homeowners.
A Texas company founded by a Republican mega-donor is leading a B.C. bid for voting rights for businesses and a shift of taxes to homeowners. Photo by Christina Ryan /Calgary Herald

Remember the old days and that whole captains-of-industry, father-knows-best paternalism? Well, we could have it again.

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The newly formed Business Tax Alliance (BTA) wants to remedy the ‘problems’ caused by renters and house-poor citizens who vote in civic elections for politicians promising some not-so-business-friendly stuff like affordable housing, community centres, parks, pools, rinks, schools, libraries and the resulting higher taxes.

This new alliance of business improvement associations in Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey wants businesses to be able to vote, and it wants more of the tax burden shifted from businesses to residential properties. It was mustered by Texas-based Ryan ULC’s Paul Sullivan, which got me wondering about Ryan ULC.

First, some history.

“As far as we could determine, we are the only jurisdiction in North America, maybe the free world, to allow this,” Minister of Municipal Affairs, Recreation and Housing Robin Blencoe told The Vancouver Sun in 1993 when he nixed the business vote in civic elections.

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Up until 1973, companies including foreign-owned ones had an unrestricted number of votes. It allowed them to vote multiple times if they had multiple addresses. Those rights were suspended until 1976 when business-electors were reinstated with one vote per company and only if the company’s owner didn’t already have a vote in that municipality. All those provincial changes brought B.C. municipalities in line with the City of Vancouver, which had never granted corporate voting rights.

The 1993 decision was “repugnant,” Ann Chiasson, then-president of Whistler’s Chamber of Commerce, said. She argued that businesses have “a significant stake in the decisions of local councils — everything from taxation to planning.”

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But former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell apparently didn’t agree. As premier, he didn’t reinstate the vote.

So what is Ryan ULC? Essentially, its core business is clawing back taxes for corporations through litigation, influencing governments and engineering policy changes to benefit business. Toronto-based Onex Corp. owns a 42-per-cent share in Ryan ULC. Its founder is billionaire and Liberal Party of Canada fundraiser Gerry Schwartz.

When Onex paid $317 million for its share of Ryan in 2018 the Texas-based firm was valued at $1.1 billion. Two years later, Ryan had 2,872 employees in 50 countries and an estimated US$630 million in revenue.

Since then, it’s been on a bit of a Canadian buying spree.

In October, Ryan ULC picked up Guelph, Ont.-based Mentor Works that specializes in finding and securing government funding and grants for companies. In August, Ryan ULC bought Toronto-based PS Johnson that “specializes in prosecuting property tax appeals for corporate clients.”

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In January, it bought Vancouver property consultancy Burgess Cawley Sullivan. Sullivan has stayed on, adding BTA spokesman and “technical expert” to his credits in addition to being chair of the Vancouver Fair Tax Coalition’s technical committee.

It seems a perfect fit with Ryan ULC.

Its founder, chairman and CEO is G. Brint Ryan. A decade ago, Texas Monthly called him one of the state’s most powerful people, describing him as the legislature’s “shadow comptroller” because his company “sucks about $1.5 billion a year out of the state’s treasury for its corporate clients.”

Ryan has also been described by The Washington Post as “a Republican mega-donor.”

In 2015, Ryan helped raise US$17 million through a super PAC — a political action committee — for former Texas governor Rick Perry’s short-lived bid to be the Republicans’ presidential candidate. https://publicintegrity.org/politics/pro-rick-perry-super-pacs-give-back-millions/

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In June 2020, the lavish fundraiser that Ryan hosted for Donald Trump made headlines. Tickets were US$500,000 a couple and an estimated US$10 million was raised.

Earlier this year, Ryan ULC was allegedly linked to an FBI corruption unit investigation involving Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s present and former staff members. They had allegedly pressed for a secret deal to refund as much as US$100 million in taxes to companies that were all clients of Ryan ULC. Among the Ryan employees allegedly working on the file were three of Ducey’s former top staff, including one who is now a federal judge.

In October, Ryan responded to the stories published by USA Today and The Arizona Republic, saying that the company is unaware of any probe.

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“We have not been contacted,” he said in a news release. “But Ryan would welcome one because we are confident in the outcome. Top legal experts in Arizona have defended the actions of those we hired as proper.”

Back in B.C. and 1993 when businesses lost the ability to vote municipally, people were already concerned about low the voter turnout was that hovered at “only” about 50 per cent.

These days, that kind of turnout would be a triumph. Even using “new strategies,” including the ability to vote anywhere, Vancouver managed to boost the turnout in 2018 to 39.4 per cent of 176,450 eligible voters. Still, that was better than Richmond (35.7 per cent), Burnaby (33.5) and Surrey (32.6), but it lagged behind Victoria at 44.9 per cent.

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Also noteworthy in 2018 was that for the first time businesses were banned from making campaign contributions.

In 2018, only 957 votes separated Mayor Kennedy Stewart from Ken Sim, who ran for the Non-Partisan Association on a platform that included lower taxes for businesses. The top vote-getter on council, Green Leader Adriane Carr, got 69,730 votes. Sarah Kirby-Yung squeaked into the 10th seat with 43,581.

Less than a year away from the next civic election, think about it.

There are nearly 80,000 registered businesses in Vancouver. If they could vote, a group that size highly motivated by, say, the promise of lower taxes, could swing the vote in a New York minute.

dbramham@postmedia.com

twitter:@bramham_daphne

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