Tax system needs a good cleanup

Posted on January 25, 2015 in Equality Delivery System – Opinion/Commentary – Ottawa gives away billions every year in tax credits, shelters and deductions that serve no public policy purpose and meet no real need.
Jan 24 2015.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

According to the Fraser Institute, which takes a dim view of tax credits, Stephen Harper has created 68 new ones since taking office.

According to Employment Minister Jason Kenney, who never met a tax break he didn’t like, the prime minister has doled out $3,400 to the average family in credits, deductions, shelters and exemptions.

The auditor general has stopped counting. So have most economists, accountants and policy analysts.

The opposition parties seldom talk about the issue, wary perhaps of being exposed as hypocrites if they dispense tax credits in office.

But it is worth talking about. Canadians pay a steep price for their government’s myriad of tax preferences covering everything from kids’ piano lessons to long-haul truckers’ lunches. They cost approximately $150 billion a year in foregone revenue. That is money that could have been used to maintain public services, shore up the health-care system, improve aging infrastructure or balance the budget.

The Conservatives have repeatedly promised to close tax loopholes — and repeatedly failed to deliver. What they’ve done instead is hatch more. They announced two pre-budget tax breaks last October: a doubling of the children’s fitness tax credit and a scheme allowing parents to reduce their tax bills by splitting their income. They hope to bring in two more — an adult fitness tax credit and an expansion of tax-free savings accounts — before this fall’s election.

This is a slapdash way to manage the nation’s finances. It is not fair, it is not fiscally responsible and there is no discernible rationale.

But don’t expect anything to change. No matter who governs the country, the temptation to create tax credits will be irresistible. They can be targeted at whatever constituency a government wants to reward. They can be doled out in election years when the party in power wants to remind voters of its generosity. They don’t show up on the federal balance sheet (although the Finance Department produces a weighty annual publication called Tax Expenditures and Evaluations). It is extremely difficult to track their impact.

Whittling down this buildup of tax credits is more trouble than it’s worth politically. Every loophole matters to someone — someone who might raise an outcry about losing it. A few — the working income tax credit, the disability tax credit, the caregiver tax credit and the child tax credit — have commendable objectives.

But suppose Canada had a leader with the courage to eliminate all the loopholes that didn’t serve a public purpose or meet any real need. The list might include: the political contribution tax credit ($24 million); the apprentice vehicle mechanics’ tool deduction ($4 million); the textbook tax credit ($33 million); the children’s fitness tax credit ($115 million) the children’s art tax credit ($38 million); the home relocation loan deduction ($5 million); the adoption expense tax credit ($3 million); the deduction for union and professional dues ($895 million); the employee stock option deduction ($720 million); the oversees employment tax credit ($65 million); the volunteer firefighters tax credit ($15 million); the flow-through share deduction ($205 million); the mineral exploration tax credit for flow-through shares ($40 million); the deduction for clergy residences ($90 million); the tax credit for donations of publicly listed shares to charity ($157 million); the tax credit for donations of cultural property to charity ($25 million); the first-time homebuyers tax credit ($115 million); the public transit tax credit ($170 million); and the lifetime capital gains exemption for small business shares ($620 million).

Federal revenues would go up by an immediate $3.4 billion ($5.9 billion if Harper’s two latest tax breaks are included). That would be enough to produce a comfortable surplus, cushion the government from shocks such as plummeting oil prices and alleviate the cost-cutting that has become a permanent feature of federal budget-making. Properly done — which is to say, with citizen participation — the cleanup could lead to a more comprehensive overhaul of Canada’s 40-year-old tax system, which is riddled with inequities.

Compared to the tax reforms U.S. President Barack Obama is proposing or the rate restructuring the OECD is recommending, closing loopholes is child’s play. All it takes is a leader willing to put common sense before political pandering.

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