Governance & Politics
July 24, 2015

Op-ed: Why the referendum defeat was a good thing

As Gabriel Metcalf notes in the post below, “San Francisco does not have a massive network of regional public transit connecting hundreds of different high-density, walkable communities to the city.”  So those who can afford it cluster in San Francisco.

Does the decisive No vote in the referendum mean the end of our regional vision – one that aimed to provide a rapid-transit network joining regional town centres so that it would be possible to live in dense, walkable communities throughout Metro while having fast access to other centres across the region, especially for jobs?

Elizabeth Murphy in a Sun op-ed argues that the defeat of the referendum was a good thing because it meant the rejection of that regional vision.

Opinion: Transit plebiscite vote was a rejection of TransLink’s plan  .

The 62 per cent No vote result in the transit plebiscite was not simply a rejection of the sales tax or a renunciation of TransLink; it was, more important, a rejection of the plan generally. …

The plan was also rejected in Vancouver. Although it had the biggest ticket item, the Broadway subway, putting most of the resources into only one corridor, with the huge tower development that would follow, is a mistaken direction that needs to be reconsidered.

Rather than a few mega-project corridors, we need to look at the transit network as a whole. If the transit resources were more broadly distributed using more affordable technology, benefits would be achieved throughout the region. …

Improving service on all arterial routes would achieve much broader benefits at a significantly lower cost. The most cost-effective electric technology is the trolley bus. Most of the infrastructure exists already in the city. It could be expanded and improved as a clean, quiet transit system. Some areas would also support streetcars since the city was originally designed for streetcars.

Perhaps it is time to ensure there is enough electric transit capacity to support what we already have zoned rather than planning for more development than is sustainable.

Full op-ed here.

So, no more upzoning, no more density – certainly no more towers in Vancouver.  No more rapid-transit lines, especially along Broadway – just more trolleys.  And for the region, the old interurban lines – upscaled versions of the trolleybus along abandoned rights-of-way.

Prediction: Vancouver becomes a disconnected island of super-affluence, the population pressures are shifted to the suburbs, along with the traffic congestion and overcrowding on the transit system.  Jobs continue to cluster in downtown, along Broadway and at UBC, without sufficient transportation capacity to serve them.  There is no regional consensus, or funding.   Nor a willingness of west-side neighbourhoods to rezone, not even for the Jericho lands.

And so long as there has to be a plebiscite for any new transit funding in the region, no change in the status quo.

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From Bruce Haden, Architect and Urban Designer

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  1. Remember California’s “ Proposition 13”?

The 1978 Howard Jarvis led referendum that capped California’s property taxes was a watershed moment that introduced two profoundly damaging results. The first was the revenue loss that gutted the ability of local governments in California to provide crucial services for the public good such as libraries. I firmly believe this was not simply a terrible result for those that used those services, but cost California dearly in terms of its social cohesion, economic growth and sense of civitas.

The second result of Proposition 13 was to create a broader referendum based ongoing political guerrilla war against virtually any progressive initiatives – although some progressive initiatives benefitted from referenda wins, the overall cost in effective governance was brutal. Proposition 13 started a process that fundamentally changed the basic rules of representative government and resulted in a string of very bad but “voter friendly” initiatives.

I believe the transit referendum could send B.C. down this same terrible path. This is not to say that referendums should never be used, but it was a destructive and anti – urban move by the provincial Liberals to have used this strategy in this case, and it is up to thoughtful citizens to help contain the damage that would be caused to governance in British Columbia by a “No” vote.

Governments are never perfect. Governments handicapped by the simplistic dictates of plebiscite are awful.

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  1. Quality transit is a basic component of equity

Most of us worried about the cost of income equality to all of us have also been concerned about the extremely high housing costs in Metro Vancouver that are a huge burden on those without very high incomes. This reduces the quality of life for all of us by limiting the ability of non-wealthy creatives and the providers of basic services to live here. Quality transit helps reduce the overall cost of living for transit users and is a basic component of equity and economic fairness.

A city without a middle class is a city worse for all to live in.

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  1. Translink is not perfect – but no organization with such a complex mandate is perfect

I have worked with Translink on several projects. It is full of passionate people who rightly believe the provision of quality transit is a central aspect of the quality of life in Metro Vancouver. Are they perfect? No. Any organization that is so large and has so many responsibilities will ALWAYS have instances of wasted funds that could be used as simplistic one-line targets for opponents. If you work in any business, non-profit or government agency, imagine your organization being under attack for fiscal irresponsibility by opponents seeking to score points. Don’t you think there would be ammunition they could use against your workplace? And the alternative to any visibly wasted dollars is to put in ridiculously restrictive control mechanisms that remove judgement or nuance from decision-making.

This process does not save money, it leads to ponderous internal processes that reduce the quality of decisions and waste way more money – it just wastes that money less visibly.

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  1. You have been paying for major transit already – ask yourself if you would want to undo those past decisions?

Your tax dollars have paid for transit for many years. If you could unwind the past would you really want to get rid of the Expo line, or the Millenium line, or the Seabus in order to have a few bucks back in your pocket while you were living in a region that was poorer and less equitable, harder to get around, and more polluted? If you vote “No” you will be making a choice for the future that you probably would never make for the past.

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In Vancouver’s transit referendum, vote ‘Yes’

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Exasperation at a public-transit agency is probably an inevitable fact of life in urban Canada. So the voters of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia shouldn’t reflexively react to delays on bus routes and other such frustrations, by voting “No” in the plebiscite on the proposed “congestion improvement tax” – for which ballots are being mailed this week to the residents of Greater Vancouver.

This is not a plebiscite on whether TransLink, the regional transportation agency, has been doing a perfect job. (It hasn’t.)

On the contrary, a Yes vote offers an excellent prospect for better transportation. Last June, 20 out of 21 mayors agreed to a well-thought-out plan, including the enlightened idea of charging drivers for their usage of roads: “time-and-distance-based tolls.”

Polls suggest that the No side is well ahead, perhaps by as much as two to one. There is still time for sober second and third thoughts. The mail-in plebiscite will remain open until May 29.

The ballot question has the virtue of simplicity. It is not posed as a complex plan. Instead, the voters are asked whether they approve the idea of adding half of one percentage point to the provincial sales tax – in the region, not the whole province.

On the other hand, the very suggestion of a sales-tax increase, even a modest one, could be the waving of a bright red flag, in a province with a history of populism. The lamentable history of the harmonized sales tax referendum of 2011 demonstrates the risks.

But the provincial Liberal government insisted on this approach. And it has its virtues. Voters are being faced with an honest choice. “Somebody else will pay” is not one of the options.

The plebiscite is a real opportunity to improve transit in the Lower Mainland. The proposal is a far better option than doing nothing. On balance, a Yes vote is the way forward.

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Three items to discuss:

First, Stephen Rees’ analysis on the Bateman strategy: “Jordan Bateman calls Yes campaign ‘vicious and personal’”

The mainstream media has criticised the Yes campaign for being geeky: concentrating on facts and figures, and making complex arguments showing how transit is related to other issues like access to employment, affordability of living in this region and so on. They have been recommending the sort of emotional appeal that works for the No side. …

The initial responses are polite and appear concerned with debate, but gradually decline in tone, as other commenters pile on. On twitter, more names and hashtags get added to replies to use up more of the 140 characters. And beware of any discussion that has the bcpoli hash tag. Now that gets really down and dirty. ….

Jordan should not complain about “vicious” when so many of his supporters have so eagerly embraced that, where it suits them. Jordan cannot complain about personal since he has been front and centre from the start. … Ask Ian Jarvis how he feels about personal attacks, Jordan.

… the noise will continue. NO will be mainly Bateman – but also a lot of people who think that taxes make them worse off. And who do not want to argue about facts and figures. It is a feeling – and a feeling they have in common with many others. Quote from The Goodbye Girl “I’m angry. I don’t want to lose it.”

The next stage of this referendum after the vote will be the lessons.  Unless there’s a major reversal, the question will be: “What is the meaning of No” – and, if left uncontested, the opportunity will be to reverse the direction of this region, to move it further, much further, to the libertarian right.  No to more taxes.  No to more transit unless paid from existing revenue.  No to more greeny planning strategies and the compact, transit-oriented region.  Yes to cuts in transit service, yes to privatization.  Yes to more roads and bridges without a vote, no to more transit plans without one.

The political leadership of this region, having staked their credibility on a Yes campaign, will be significantly weakened – unless they learn another lesson: there will be no satisfying the No campaign.  There is nothing they can do to reform TransLink that will satisfy it, no revised or modified plans that will be acceptable, no new revenue source tolerated, even to maintain the existing level of service.

The conventional wisdom, particularly from much of the media, will be that leaders have to accept defeat as the new reality, remove transit expansion as a priority, and let the Province pursue its Motordom agenda, with a sop to Surrey for its light rail and a finger to Vancouver for, well, anything.  One can see the trend already in Vaughan Palmer’s column in today’s Sun: Jordan Bateman’s lone voice has most people listening.

Consensus? What consensus? If the polls hold and the tax is defeated, the most likely outcome is that we’ll go back to bickering about priorities, funding sources and the most perfect structure for a regional transportation authority.

We already have our priorities, the funding sources are in the TransLink legislation (but rejected by the Province) and there’s no such thing as a perfect structure.  The only relevant question is: Will we continue with the vision of a region that organizes it growth around transit, making it one of the most successful urban regions in the world.

Affirmation arrives in another Tweet:  Vancouver fifth-best place to live in the world: Mercer study.

But note this about the city that is No. 1 on the list:

Vienna’s excellent infrastructure, safe streets and good public health service make it the nicest place to live in the world …

Just the sorts of things paid for by taxes, infrastructure, social and physical, that are the basis for economic activity and livability.  Just the sort of things that the No side would defund to get the tax rate down to that ideal 30-percent.

There was a meeting a few years ago, I was told, where Translink and Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure planners and engineers were meeting. Said the MOTI man:

“You (TransLink) think you are building Vienna.  

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Luis Bernhardt:

It’s worth seeing what the other side has to say, especially if it’s someone with the clout of Terence Corcoran, Financial Post’s editor. He’s basically saying that the Transit Tax (he thankfully doesn’t fall for the Bateman red herring and pull Translink into it) is the thin edge of the wedge. It’s a good idea to think about how to refute a reasoned argument (although I think this will just go right over the heads of most Vancouver voters, except for the “just say no” part):

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Terence Corcoran: Hey, Vancouver: Just say ‘No’ to transit tax

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The campaign for the transit tax—a Vancouver-region increase of 0.5% in the provincial sales tax to raise $250-million a year—has the backing of a council of local mayors, a multi-million dollar marketing budget, plus the usual round-up of local business leaders, green activists and assorted economic theorists flaunting big dollar stats and grand claims that the tax will trigger major long-term economic and congestion benefits for all Vancouver. Be happy, vote for higher taxes. …

Only 6% of the $7.5-billion will go for road/bike lane improvements, with another 13% to replace the Patullo Bridge. The bulk of the money, more than 80%, will be sunk into assorted public transit schemes, the biggest item being $4-billion in new rapid  rail transit investment, including a new line to the Vancouver suburb of Langley to give a fresh boost to urban sprawl. …

Nothing in any of the material on the Mayors’ Council’s glitzy get-out-and-vote Web site explains how any of this onslaught of taxes and spending will reduce actual congestion and/or improve the lives of Vancouverites. It’s a dream that has never really materialized anywhere, even in cities that have tried all the options: Spend billions on public transit, raise taxes on carbon and cars, and everybody will be happier, riding their bikes, hopping on trains and cruising over traffic-free roads. …

There may be good policies around to tackle congestion, including deregulation and allowing commuters to devise their own congestion-fighting behaviors. How about privatizing transit? But the idea that traffic can be controlled and reduced with massive new taxation schemes to fund zillion-dollar sprawl-inducing public transit created by central planning bureaucracies and politicians has become part of our modern urban mythology. Vote “No.”

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 PT: “How about privatizing transit?”   Assuming a No vote, expect that to be the next meme.

 

Todd Litman responds:

Corcoran uses standard anti-tax and anti-transit. He fails to address the key issues:

  • High quality public transit provides a variety of savings and benefits to users and non-users.
  • Vancouver’s transit performance is actually good compared with peer cities.
  • There is increasing demand for public transit travel. Providing more service responds to consumer needs and preferences.

See data here.

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A good example of Fraser Institute thinking, and strategy.

It’s an op-ed in the Sun – in response to Dahne Bramham’s column here.  (She’ll be speaking about it at Thursday’s City Conversation.)

Anti-tax’ accusation based on silly, simplistic arguments

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Taxes are indeed needed to fund important government services, critical both to a well functioning economy and, more generally, civilization. But there is a point when a larger, more interventionist government, combined with a heavier tax burden, can stunt economic growth and social outcomes, or achieve those outcomes only at great additional cost. …

Research shows that taxpayers get the best bang for their buck (in terms of economic and social outcomes) when total government spending is around 30 per cent of the economy. In Canada, total government spending is now 41 per cent, down from about 53 per cent in 1992, but still higher than what is optimal.

That means there’s room to scale back. When governments faced major fiscal problems in the 1990s, they responded with sweeping action to cut spending and reform programs, leading to a major structural change in the government’s involvement in the Canadian economy. The reforms created room for important tax reductions and ultimately helped usher in a period of sustained economic growth and job creation.

So it’s not surprising that Bramham and others feel that the public discourse since the 1990s has focused primarily on tax reductions and ensuring the right tax mix. After all, the reforms worked! …

In fact, voters in the upcoming plebiscite, which proposes a regional PST hike to fund transit expansion, should understand the economic problems associated with this particular type of tax, which discourages investment and job creation.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s not even clear that governments in Metro Vancouver need the extra revenue. Municipal governments would do well to more heavily scrutinize their spending choices before requiring Metro Vancouverites to pay higher taxes, simplistic arguments notwithstanding.

 

Well, that seems unequivocal: 30 percent gives the best bang.   And whose research might that be?  And who defined what ‘best bang’ means in terms of economic and social outcomes?  In any event, it’s contradicted by the next highlight:

The reforms created room for important tax reductions and ultimately helped usher in a period of sustained economic growth and job creation.

If sustained economic growth was achieved at 41 percent while still delivering social goods (like non-market housing, a program sacrificed as part of the noted reforms), then why is 30 percent better?  This sounds like dogma, not economics: tax cuts good, government spending bad.  In a word: simplistic.  In another: silly.

But this is the usual op-ed back-and-forth.  The most important line is the one at the end:

Municipal governments would do well to more heavily scrutinize their spending choices before requiring Metro Vancouverites to pay higher taxes, simplistic arguments notwithstanding.

This in fact is what the referendum is about: forcing local government to cut their budgets by denying any source of revenue, new or existing, to fund anticipated growth – in this case, public transit.  (More here in Fraser Games – 5: The Larger Agenda.)

As an unstated outcome, the strategy has led to rising inequality, first by defunding those programs that provide similar services to all regardless of income.  Secondly, by cutting taxes that disproportionately benefit the affluent.

Let me repeat something that so far has failed to resonate:

AMOUNT RICHEST 2 PERCENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIANS WILL RECEIVE IN A TAX DECREASE THIS YEAR: $230 million

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Roughly the same amount that could be raised by the sales tax to fund transit – and support the economic activity that would result – will be retained by the richest 2 percent in the province.  It couldn’t be more blatant.

For the Fraser Institute, this, presumably, is the best bang for the buck: less government services for all, more wealth for the already rich.

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Buses vs TransLink is at heart of referendum

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News flash: New referendum poll finds strong lead for No side.

When everyone wakes up after the votes are counted and the 0.5% transit tax has been voted down, if the polls are to be believed, who will notice?

Buses will still be crowded during rush hour. Traffic will still be gridlocked at choke points throughout the region. And buses will run infrequently at night or not at all.

Of course, No spokesperson Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation will be pleased and can update his LinkedIn account to apply for better jobs while Premier Christy Clark can check off an election campaign promise, a referendum on transportation financing that was doomed from the start.

Let’s face it, as we know from the HST vote, it’s hard to convince people to pay more taxes now for a future benefit but easy to tap into public anger about government spending, regardless of how out of context or inaccurate the information on which the anger is based.

TransLink is the straw man in this debate — also the scapegoat and the scourge — and to beat down this perceived demon, people would rather have crappy roads and transit well into the future.

It’s crazy but in the aftermath of the transit referendum, it will be too late to reconsider.

That’s because the only opportunity to prove that the Yes side might have been right won’t come for another 10 or 20 years.

By then, many of the folks who are on different sides of this vote will be retired or dead, and their kids will be dealing with the fallout from referendum results.

These are today’s college and high school students who will be saddled with the hefty retirement pensions for those who voted against the proposed sales tax hike. They’re the ones who will be sitting in gridlock or waiting for buses and who will see good jobs disappear to places with better transportation infrastructure.

They might wonder, those taxpayers of tomorrow, whether an opportunity to do something better was lost along the way.

But that’s OK, because we’ll have given TransLink a smack on the nose and, for today at least, that seems to be the most important thing.

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The referendum voting hasn’t even started, but the outcome at the moment doesn’t look good.  How did we get to this point – and what was the point of the referendum in the first place?  It’s not too soon to begin the analysis, since whoever gets to define the meaning of the outcome will help determine whatever action can follow.

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Doug Ward in The Tyee:

What Drives TransLink’s Biggest Hater?

Insights into Jordan Bateman, the meme maker opposed to the transit tax hike.

Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, calls Bateman’s strategy “The Great Dupe” — persuading people that a negative vote in the upcoming plebiscite would be a “message” to TransLink rather than a rejection of needed transit expansion.

“It’s the brilliance of Bateman’s meme,” said Price. “How do you get people, even a bus rider, to vote against their best interests?” ….

Price said Bateman’s strategy has been to smear TransLink in order to defeat any proposed tax hikes to fund transit. The CTF spokesman launched a “steady beat of criticism, amplified for and by the media” over a range of TransLink controversies, said Price, including executive pay, free coffee, public art, fare evasion, the troubled Compass Card program and policing costs. …

For his part, Bateman happily trots out the epithet “elitist” to describe Yes supporters such as Price and Toderian. In the CTF’s world, taxpayers know best how to spend their own dollars. It’s a tactic used by Bateman’s right-wing counterparts in the U.S., who constantly accuse Democrats of being “elitists” who think they know better than average people. The irony is that the anti-tax policies of Bateman’s CTF and the Republicans serve to entrench social inequality. …

(Greg) Moore (chair of the Metro Vancouver board and mayor of Port Coquitlam) has little respect for what he calls the “destructive” approach taken by Bateman since he joined the CTF.

“His only objective is to get to No regardless of the effects it will have on this region. And I think that is a dangerous argument,” said Moore. “But that is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation mantra on everything. All levels of government should be able to fund a whole bunch of stuff with existing tax revenues…. But they never come forward with solutions. Just: ‘No.'”

This is correct in essence, but not totally accurate. Broadly speaking, the CTF regularly argues that governments of all levels, but especially municipal ones, can save money by slashing public sector wages and pension plans. The group has also put forward an alternate plan to finance the proposed 10-year transit vision. The problem is not a single mayor in the region thinks it could work. …

When SFU’S Price heard about Clark’s referendum plan, his first reaction was “this sucker is going down. It’s a referendum, it was meant for that purpose. But even then I underestimated how bad it would be. If there is a No vote, this is discrediting the leadership class of the entire region. Who fills that void?

“Jordan Bateman?”

My sense is that the leadership of this region still doesn’t get that they are fighting a battle (albeit half-heartedly) that isn’t even in the same war as the one that Bateman, the CTF and the other apparatus of conservative economics are winning.

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Further comment in the last few days:

Peter Ladner in Business in Vancouver:

Some people are calling this The Great Dupe, where large numbers of people have been stirred into fear and anger by someone in Langley who never uses transit (because “service is so poor around town that it’s virtually unusable”) and who has teamed up with a former campaigner for the oil industry to conclude that saving $0.35 a day per household – and by default promoting cars, costly new highways, congestion, air pollution and social isolation – is in the interests of “everyday people.”

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Eric Doherty in Rabble:

If the Yes side goes down to defeat in Metro Vancouver, and progressive forces run away with their tails between their legs, imposing designed-to-fail transit referendums could become a favoured tactic of right wing governments across Canada.

On the other hand,

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Pete McMartin again:

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Without the projects the tax will fund, Metro will have many more cars and an increase in greenhouse gases

Cars create the hell that is commuting, but — and this is their self-perpetuating irony — what better way to escape that hell than to wrap oneself in a quiet cocoon of steel and glass while listening to the radio and sipping your morning coffee. What self-indulgence. What unthinking ease. Outside it’s hell, but brother, inside it’s heaven.

Call a commuter on that selfindulgence and you’ll hear all the excuses — I need my car during the day, public transit is too slow or nonexistent, I have to get home to pick up the kids from school.

For some, that may be true. But for the majority, it’s just blather. It’s the blithe self-justification for the fact that, at heart, they just don’t care to get out of their car.

None of this has entered the conversation in the debate over the upcoming transit plebiscite. According to the No side, the fault lies, not with human nature, but with the operation of our public transit system. To hear them, Metro Vancouver’s transit is on par with Baghdad’s, and so badly run that instituting a small tax to fund future projects would be throwing money down the drain.

This is, again, blather. Those rare times, for example, when the Expo line has malfunctioned have been blown way out of proportion, as if it were proof the whole system has to be abandoned and remade. It doesn’t. A transit line malfunction is not a disaster. It’s a glitch.

But human nature? That’s way harder to fix. …

Yet so far, the debate over the upcoming transit plebiscite has been all about money and the cost to taxpayers.

What you do not hear about is the cost of the havoc that cars wreak.

Aside from the enormous government subsidies that motorists enjoy, aside from the space they take up, their societal cost is primarily environmental. It is that enormous and imminently catastrophic cost the No side ignores. But a 0.5 per cent rise in the sales tax? Horror.

Projections have a million more people coming to Metro in the next 25 years. In the absence of the proposed transit plan, projections also call for 600,000 additional cars.

With the transit plan fully realized, Metro’s engineers estimate that in that time frame, the increased transit system will be able to effect an annual reduction of about 550,000 tonnes in greenhouse gases, or enough to keep it to present levels. Even with the transit plan, we’ll just be treading water.

All those car commuters strung along the highway? They might cocoon themselves from their daily hell but not the unnerving thought that, incrementally, with every mile, they’re hurtling themselves and their loved ones toward some greater disaster. I bet they wonder, as I do, if their car addiction isn’t jeopardizing the future of their children and grandchildren.

They should put their money where their doubt is.

 

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