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Ottawa urged to go public with planned changes to tax credits
Feb. 27, 2017
Bill Curry

The Liberal government’s plan to eliminate some tax credits in the 2017 budget faced private criticism from Canadian accountants for being too secretive.

Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s department was urged by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, the national voice of accountants, to make the government’s plans public with an interim report before any final decision is announced.

Despite this, the results of this review will not be revealed until Mr. Morneau’s next budget, expected in March.

Part of the review’s goal is to eliminate tax credits that disproportionately benefit higher-income Canadians, but the level of secrecy has produced months of speculation and behind-the-scenes lobbying over what tax changes may be included in the budget.

Because of the targeted nature of these so-called boutique tax credits, there will inevitably be specific groups who will be disappointed on budget day, when the results are unveiled.

“The current process is department driven,” wrote Gabe Hayos, CPA Canada’s vice-president for taxation, in a Sept. 19, 2016, letter to Paul Rochon, the deputy minister of the Finance Department.

“CPA Canada believes there needs to be a process in place for a national dialogue, a public consultation during the expenditure review.”

Mr. Rochon later briefed Mr. Morneau on the letter, and sent a response to Mr. Hayos in October saying department officials were open to meeting with CPA Canada to discuss the review. The letters and related briefing notes were obtained by The Globe via Access to Information legislation. A spokesperson for Mr. Morneau noted the government did hold national prebudget hearings.

The federal tax system has a large number of credits that offer Canadians tax breaks for specific actions, such as donating to charity or buying monthly transit passes.

Many of them are of negligible significance to Ottawa’s bottom line, but others – such as the tax treatment of capital gains or registered retirement savings plans – are worth billions a year in foregone tax revenue.

Estimates have pegged the total impact of tax credits – also known as tax expenditures – at more than $100-billion a year, but the Finance Department cautions it is difficult to put a firm dollar amount on the total.

The plan to review these tax credits as a potential source of new government revenue was first mentioned in the Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform. The platform estimated that about $3-billion in new revenue could be found.

It said the core objective of the review would be to find ways of reducing tax benefits that “unfairly help those with individual incomes in excess of $200,000 per year.”

Mr. Morneau’s first budget, in March, 2016, eliminated tax credits for children’s arts and fitness programs and textbook credits, but also created a new tax credit for teachers and early educators who buy school supplies. The 2016 budget promised a broader review of all tax expenditures, but did not say it would solely be focused on reducing benefits for high-income earners.

“The objective of the review is to ensure that federal tax expenditures are fair for Canadians, efficient and fiscally responsible,” the government said.

A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said the credits that most disproportionately benefit high-income Canadians are those that relate to investment income, including the treatment of dividends and capital gains.

Mr. Morneau appointed seven outside experts to advise the department during the review. The experts include Université de Sherbrooke professor Luc Godbout, who headed a similar review for the Quebec government that released a four-volume report in March, 2015, before the provincial government took any action.

In an interview, Mr. Hayos said his organization supports the federal review, but would have liked to have seen Ottawa take a similar step before making any decisions. However, his conversations with officials since writing the letter in September have led him to hope that while the budget may act immediately to eliminate some tax credits, any complicated changes will be recommended for more detailed review.

“I’m hopeful that what they’re going to do is start by making changes where there’s sort of low-hanging fruit, where some things just don’t make sense,” he said. “And then where there’s the possibility of further significant change, they’ll have to do significant public consultation so that they make the best decision possible.”

Mr. Hayos said he has not been able to determine which credits are on the government’s radar.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Hayos said tax credits can be politically beneficial, but don’t always achieve the goal of encouraging the activities targeted with the benefit.

“The problem with these credits is they add a lot of complexity to the income-tax system,” he said.