When former prime minister Stephen Harper campaigned in 2005 to cut the federal Goods and Services Tax from seven per cent to five, it was popular with voters but not with most economists.
In 2009, former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell emphasized the benefits of shifting from income to sales taxes with an effort to join Canada’s harmonized sales tax (HST). It extended sales tax to more services, while relieving the layers of sales tax from business investment. That backfired with a successful petition against the HST that forced B.C. to restore the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax (PST) and repay a $1.6 billion federal transition fund, pushing B.C. into deficit for 2012.
Now B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson is taking the Harper approach, but only temporarily to provide at least a two-year boost to consumer spending as the economy struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilkinson has proposed cutting the current provincial sales tax to zero for a year after the Oct. 24 election, and then bringing it back at only three per cent for the following year.
“Eliminating PST puts more money in people’s pockets, stimulates growth for struggling small business, and helps British Columbians who are struggling to get by,” Wilkinson said Sept. 28.
The party estimates the province would miss out on $6.88 billion in PST revenue in year one, and another $3.93 billion when the tax resumes at the three-per-cent rate. That would take the province’s deficit closer to $20 billion, with no end in sight to the pandemic’s economic slump and extra health spending demands.
The NDP government has done its own PST changes in its three years of minority government. It raised the PST to 20 per cent on vaping products last year, and in 2018 it hiked PST on high-end vehicles, from 10 per cent to 15 per cent on new or used vehicles costing $125,000 to $149,999. For vehicles costing $150,000 and up, the PST went to 20 per cent.
The B.C. Liberals say their temporary PST cuts would not apply to tobacco, vaping products or high-end vehicles. Cannabis would also continue to be subject to seven-per-cent PST, in addition to the province’s 15 per cent wholesale markup and federal GST on top of all that.
The party has not said whether its PST holiday would extend to gasoline and other fuels, already subject to federal and provincial fuel tax, carbon tax and federal and provincial sales taxes.
Before the sudden election call, former finance minister Carole James put off planned tax changes, including the end of a PST exemption for sweetened carbonated beverages. That is now to take effect April 2021, along with new PST registration and collection requirements for e-commerce businesses located outside B.C.