Gas tax changes for QC arena 'desperation': Liberals

Reports that Ottawa is weighing changes to the federal gas tax to push money towards a disputed NHL arena plan in Quebec City drew fire from the Liberal Party on Wednesday.

Mayors balk at idea, saying money has already been spent

More than 60,000 people rallied on the Plains of Abraham in Oct. 2010 in support of a new NHL team for Quebec City. How to build an appropriate arena has stirred up a political storm. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

A CBC News report that Ottawa is weighing changes to the federal gas tax to push money toward a disputed NHL arena plan in Quebec City drew fire from the Liberal Party on Wednesday.

The report said the Conservative government was considering allowing a portion of gas tax revenues to be used for building "large entertainment centres" as a way of making arenas eligible.

Any changes to the gas tax will back mayors into a corner, Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau said Wednesday.

"If you take that money from the gas excise tax that's allotted to your municipality, you're going to have to make choices, and take it away from something that may be equally important," he said. "Do they use money to build their sewers, to upgrade them, or do they use them for [arenas]?"

Garneau added it would be a "desperation measure" from the Harper government to protect Conservative MPs in Quebec.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the Conservatives were "improvising."

But NDP Leader Jack Layton did not rule out the idea.

"The municipalities should be the ones to decide how the infrastructure funds are used," Layton told reporters in Ottawa. 

"They are closest to the people, and it's important that each community be able to make such a decision and such a decision should not be available just to one city in one place, it should be available all across the country."

Ontario Conservative MP Rick Dykstra said the gas tax change was his idea and that he hasn't talked with many of his colleagues about it.

"I don't know what the provinces' perspective might be on it. I would think that for some of the municipalities that are moving in this direction it would allow them some freedom to move forward in a fair and even way," Dykstra told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday.

"I certainly didn't get any yeses and didn't get any no's. It's a concept I thought of and put forward."

Would need to apply

Dykstra said a municipality would need to apply to the agency that oversees its use of the federal gas tax funds to amend guidelines and allow for the project they wanted. In Ontario, that agency is the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, Dykstra said. 

Conservative MP James Rajotte said the idea did not involve re-opening the deal between Ottawa and the provinces.

"My understanding is there is no proposal to renegotiate the agreement between the federal government and the provincial governments," the Edmonton MP said on CBC-TV's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand told CBC News he hasn't had any talks with his federal counterpart about amending gas tax transfer rules.

It is expected that Premier Jean Charest will announce Thursday morning his government is increasing its share of the Quebec City arena project, but that amount will be final.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume declined to comment ahead of Thursday's announcement, but his spokesman told a Quebec newspaper Labeaume wants new federal money for the project.

Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel told CBC News he is skeptical about the idea.

"We've already used our gas tax money to go buy light rail transit, which was what it was supposed to be done with to begin with," said Mandel.

"Now they're saying you can do something else so, in other words, the people that didn't spend the money properly are going to get an advantage."

"Unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable, but we'll have to see."

Edmonton is looking for ways to help pay for a new downtown arena for the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities called on the government to develop a long-term plan for rebuilding the country's infrastructure.

"In general, cost-shared programs like the Building Canada Fund are best suited for funding major new construction projects, but those funds were fully allocated under the Economic Action Plan. This leaves the federal gas tax transfer — focused on public transit, water and sewer repairs and road reconstruction — as the only significant remaining source of federal infrastructure funding," FCM president Hans Cunningham said in a statement.