Monday, June 21, 2010

The Hated Sales Tax

In today's National Post, Niels Veldhuis and Charles Lammam, two economists at the Fraser Institute, wrote a column entitled "Don't believe the anti-HST rhetoric" (aka The HST is good for you. Yes it is, Is too). The column was written in response to the strong anti-HST movement in both Ontario, whose residents are defenceless against the tax, and British Columbia whose residents are opposing the tax through the use of a petition being undertaken under the province's recall legislation.

In the column, these gentlemen use the argument that the advantage to a value added tax like the HST is that "only the value added by the business selling the good or service is taxed." Businesses will receive an input tax credit (ITC) for their business inputs under the HST which will allow them to claim a tax refund for the sales tax they paid on their inputs. In a perfect world, the amount of this input tax credit is then passed along to the consumer; in the case of British Columbia and Ontario, the net change in the ITC will increase by the current amount of the provincial sales tax. If that is the case, the business should pass along their new 8% savings to the consumers of Ontario and 7% in British Columbia.

The fly in the ointment for this thesis is that far more items will be taxed under the new HST scheme. In British Columbia, the government proudly touts the fact that their new HST will be the lowest in Canada, however, it will now apply to a broader range of goods that were formerly exempt. Here's a line from the B.C. government HST blog:

"And for the majority of goods (they claim 80%) you use, you won’t pay a penny more tax because of the HST."

Ah, but according to the same website, here's a list of items that will accrue additional tax once the HST is implemented:

- books, school supplies, magazines, newspapers, EnergyStar windows, thermal insulation, weather stripping, caulking, smoke detectors, food producing plants and trees, household moving services, adult-sized clothing for children, dry cleaning, used adult clothing under $100, snack foods, restaurant meals, catering and even planning services, basic cable television, local residential phone, appliance repair, repair or renovation services to property, landscaping, taxi services, domestic air, rail and bus travel originating in B.C and real estate commissions.

...and that's enough of that. It keeps on going. Yes, there are a few cases where the tax actually drops; alcoholic beverages (those will be much needed), children's disposable diapers and a 0.4% drop in the tax on residential heating and electricity.

In Ontario, here's their line about the new HST from the Ontario Ministry of Revenue website:

"In total, about 83 per cent of products and services purchased by consumers will see no new tax."

Here's the Ontario government's handy list of old versus new tax rates for some consumer items and here's a partial list of items that will see the tax rate rise:

- dry cleaning, cleaning services, electricity and heating costs, internet access, home service calls by electricians, plumbers and carpenters, hotel rooms, camp sites, taxis, domestic air, rail, boat and bus travel originating in Ontario, subscriptions to magazines, home renovations, private resale of cars (now the GST portion will be added), gasoline and diesel, new homes over $400,000, real estate commissions, massage therapy (you're going to need it), vitamins, athletic membership fees, sport and cultural lessons, tickets for live theatre with seating less than 3200 (who came up with that number?), funeral services, legal fees, hairstyling, fitness trainers and, of course, tobacco products and nicotine replacement products.

Again, the list goes on but I started to get tired. Sorry about that. Ontario seems to really have hit their residents much harder than British Columbia, likely a reflection of Ontario's huge debt which is projected to peak at $319 billion in 2016 - 2017 and their current deficit of $21.3 billion. The Ontario government is in great need of increased revenue and the HST is one of the tools in their deficit-busting arsenal.

What is particularly concerning to me when looking at the HST regime is the deal that both British Columbia and Ontario have made with the Federal Government. In both cases, the provinces have agreed to hold the HST at the 12% and 13% levels for only the first two years; after that, the provinces are free to change their component of the HST to any level they wish. Here are the details from the Ontario agreement:

"The PVAT (Provincial portion of the HST) Rate in respect of the Province may be increased, or decreased, in accordance with the provisions of this Agreement after a minimum period of two years from the Implementation Date. Following that two-year period, any change in the PVAT Rate in respect of the Province, as permitted under the provisions of this Agreement, will not occur more often than once in any twelve-month period." (my bold)

In two years, residents of both provinces can pretty much count on increase in HST unless, of course, an election is called near the end of the two year period and a reduction in HST is used to temporarily bribe voters with their own money. Of course, the federal component is also an unknown; they can raise the GST portion as well.

One need look no further than the example of Nova Scotia to see what can happen to the HST over time. In 1997 when three of the Atlantic provinces implemented their HST programs, the rate was set at 15% on more items but at a greatly reduced rate to the former Nova Scotia PST/GST combination of 18.7% (the tax eventually dropped to 13% based on cuts to the federal portion). In its 2010 budget, Nova Scotia raised its component of the HST by 2 percentage points resulting in a new 15% HST, the highest in Canada. This move was made to directly combat the province's growing deficit/debt issue. Nova Scotia residents were sold the HST in 1997 on the basis that they'd be paying less tax on a wider range of goods. Now they find that they are paying nearly the same amount of tax (if the GST was 7% as it was in 1997) that they did prior to implementation but on a far wider range of goods.

While Mr. Veldhuis and Mr. Lammam would argue that businesses passed along their cost savings because of their now claimable input tax credits, I would argue that, as a resident of Atlantic Canada, I saw little to no evidence that prices declined, in fact, by the time prices would have declined, inflation had negated any price drop. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty claims that in other jurisdictions that have implemented HST, it has taken up to three years to see tax savings back in the pockets of consumers by which time the HST is part of life and the pre-HST regime is pretty much forgotten. What is particularly concerning to me is that consumers have to rely on the largesse of major corporations to see any price reductions that are based solely on the refund of their input tax credits. I suspect that most companies of all sizes will simply add their savings to their bottom lines.

It is also suggested that implementation of the HST in both Ontario and British Columbia will result in job creation totalling 591,000 jobs in Ontario and 113,000 jobs in British Columbia over 10 years. I'd be interested to know how an economist can distinguish between jobs that are created through normal cyclic growth in the economy and those that are directly attributable to implementation of the HST. I would suspect that there will definitely be some job creation; it is likely that a large number of jobs will be created in the public service sector related to implementation, collection and enforcement of the new HST regime.

As far as I'm concerned, jurisdictions like Ontario and British Columbia are simply using the HST to increase their tax base to fund their tax and spend mentality. If I actually thought that provincial governments (and the federal government as well) would spend their newfound wealth in a responsible manner, implementation of the HST would bother me less. Unfortunately, we all know that that simply will not be the case.


  1. Well written article, no arm waving or jumping up and down demanding McGuinty's and the Liberal Party's quick demise, as Jack Webb used to say on "Dragnet"........... "Just the facts".
    The Liberals seem intent on political suicide both Federally and Provincially.

  2. As an Ontarian I am damn sure neither the price of my hydro or internet or phone is ever going to go down to offset the HST, so that argument is an outright lie.

    And as a person on an extremely fixed income I am quite assured that I will be eating much less in the future as I cannot give up hydro or internet.

    Sign me,

  3. McGuinty and His War on the Elderly.

    Well said Hermite. Like you I am retired and will need to take steps to survive the effects of tnis regressive tax. Higher electricity costs alone will cost my wife and I dearly as we have electric heat. In order to compensate these added costs we have taken the drastic step of stopping all of our charitable. contributions.

  4. Maybe it is time for Ontarians' to demand recall legislation. That ought to make a few knees weak at Queen's Park!

  5. The 13% tax. No, it's not the HST, it's the 13% PST!

    Level Playing Field is a LIE!