July 02, 2020
By Emily F. Keller
Cascadia Law Initiative Releases Practical Guide

(Left to right: Hugh Spitzer and Margot Young)

A group of four law students and two professors from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Washington (UW) have released a comparative guide to the legal frameworks of local governments in Washington State and the Province of British Columbia.

The report, completed as part of the Cascadia Law Initiative (CLI), was designed to serve as a resource for researchers working with the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative (CUAC). The CLI was launched in 2017 to develop the legal background needed to support the creation of binational, multi-city data science partnerships and initiatives arising out of urban analytics research collaborations in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, which encompasses Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon.

The authors of the report are:

  • Kate Gotziaman, J.D., UBC Allard School of Law
  • Justin Choi, J.D., UBC Allard School of Law
  • Greyson Blue, J.D., UW School of Law
  • Dylan Olson, UW School of Law
  • Margot Young, Professor, Allard School of Law, UBC
  • Hugh Spitzer, Professor of Law, UW School of Law

The CLI is led by law professors Hugh Spitzer at UW and Margot Young at UBC. Three of the four law students who researched and wrote the CLI report, with their professors, have since graduated. Kate Gotziaman, now a lawyer at the Vancouver firm Lidstone & Company, credits her work as a research assistant for CUAC with introducing her to municipal law.

The report, “Comparison of British Columbia and Washington State City Powers,” published on SSRN, provides a practical guide to the differences and similarities between the legal frameworks governing jurisdictions in British Columbia and Washington, with a focus on Vancouver and Surrey in Metro Vancouver, and Seattle and Bellevue in Metro Seattle. The report abstract is published in SSRN’s Political Institutions eJournals: Federalism & Sub-National Politics eJournal, volume 14, No. 31, on June 3, 2020. The full version of the paper can be downloaded from this site.

The report explains the relationship between cities and other levels of government, the structure and sources of municipal authority, and the legislative and policy tools available for cities to act on key urban issues prioritized by CUAC: homelessness, affordable housing, and transportation. The content is divided into four chapters: 1. Introduction and Overview; 2. City Powers in British Columbia; 3. City Powers in Washington State; and, 4. Comparing Municipal Powers in B.C. and Washington State.

The authors identified several areas of compatible governing practices that apply to the Cascadia region, in spite of different historical structures, in the U.S. and Canada. While constitutional powers appear to provide greater authority for local governments in the western U.S., compared with stronger federal authority and weaker powers granted to municipalities in Canada, the authors found that the two countries have shifted over time towards similar practical relationships between local and state/provincial authority through legislative action and judicial interpretation. On the local level, while Washington cities can impose any regulation for public health, safety, and welfare if the regulation doesn’t conflict with state law, government actions in B.C. cities must be tied more closely to statutory authorization. However, in practice, local actual powers in the two regions are largely similar.

Some of the key differences between municipal powers in B.C. and Washington State discussed in the report are:

  • While property taxes are a significant source of general-purpose revenue for both jurisdictions, cities in Washington are authorized to impose a wider variety of taxes than cities in British Columbia, such as real estate excise tax, gambling tax, hotel/motel tax, and parking tax;
  • To borrow money, cities in Washington may issue general obligation bonds or revenue bonds. In British Columbia, municipalities other than Vancouver participate in pooled borrowings of the Municipal Finance Authority of British Columbia. Vancouver, alternatively, borrows on national and international credit markets.

To illustrate the governmental and legal complexities across the region, the report concludes by describing a hypothetical drive in an autonomous vehicle through Vancouver, Surrey, Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond in a two-way dedicated A/V lane, listing the 74 governmental entities that would need to approve any initiative facilitating such a journey.

Discussions are currently underway to extend the original analysis to Oregon through collaboration with faculty at the University of Oregon Law School, and to expand the focus to legal issues associated with additional topics of regional interest, including wildfires and pandemic response.

Research for the report, including collaborative team activities involving travel to both universities, was partially funded by CUAC. To read the full CLI report, click here.