Wednesday’s HST town hall meetings were a good first step. The provincial government is finally making the effort to listen to citizens about the tax, as a vote on whether or not it will last looms.
Many people are still willing to listen, as indicated by the 27, 000 Surrey residents who took 90 minutes out of their evening to listen to Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, ask questions and leave opinions about the tax.
It’s too bad it took two years for the provincial government to do what it should logically have done first — listen carefully, gather opinions and suggestions and then make a reasoned decision on whether or not the HST was the right sales tax for B.C.
The HST may yet pass muster with voters in the mail-in referendum. Ballots go out in June and must be returned in July. It is likely there will be significant participation, as the HST affects everybody and has been the dominant political issue in the province for the past two years.
However, if it is to get majority support, the province has to show some flexibility — much more than it has thus far. It needs to look at improving the HST rebate system, so that more people on fixed or modest incomes get some tax relief. Falcon admitted on Wednesday that this is a tax shift, and it is hurting those who are just above the cut-off for HST rebates quite hard.
The government also needs to look at the inequities caused by the tax. One questioner noted that, if you set up a business (even without any expectation of profit), you are able to buy large items like cars and computers and not pay tax. Meanwhile, people who are on salaries get no such tax breaks.
It needs to consider how the HST, when combined with the property purchase tax, inhibits home ownership, and it needs to carefully consider whether a reduction in the HST rate, even when the province is still in deficit, would be a net benefit.
There is no question that the HST is good for many businesses. Thus far however, there has been no appreciable decline in prices, and consumers have seen very little to convince them this tax is worth keeping.