The B.C. government is spending $1.7 million to finance a province-wide debate on the harmonized sales tax, and will consider offering changes to it before a mail-in referendum is held in June and July.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon announced the funding in Vancouver Thursday. He said one possibility would be offering to reduce the rate on the provincial portion of the tax, if the public wants that and if it can be done without upsetting the plan to balance the provincial budget.
"I want to make sure that government is committed to a position of improving the HST prior to the vote being made on June 24," Falcon said.
The province is restricted by its agreement with the federal government that combines the former seven-per-cent provincial sales tax with the five-per-cent federal goods and services tax. That agreement requires the current seven per cent provincial portion of the HST to remain as is until July 2012, but Falcon said if B.C. taxpayers want it changed sooner, he would discuss that with Ottawa.
The B.C. government could also offer further provincial rebates to offset the HST on such things as sports programs, Falcon said. Rebates already apply to gasoline and home energy use in B.C.
The funding includes $500,000 to be divided between the "yes" and "no" campaigns. Former B.C. ombudsman and MP Stephen Owen has been appointed to administer the fund and decide who qualifies to receive a share.
There will be a mail-out to all residents of B.C., including submissions arguing for and against keeping the harmonized tax. A series of town hall meetings will be held at universities and colleges where people can debate the merits of the two tax systems.
The government plans to start sending out mail-in ballots in mid-June, and they must be received by Elections BC no later than July 22. It will be August before the results are known, and the government knows whether to keep the HST or negotiate an end to it with the federal government.
Former premier Bill Vander Zalm's Fight HST organization, which forced a referendum with a petition last year, released a study last week making a case to reject the HST. Fight HST argues that provinces with HST have higher unemployment and inflation than those that don't.
The finance ministry countered that low unemployment in Alberta and Saskatchewan is due to their booming resource sectors, not their sales tax systems. It cited reports by the Bank of Canada and others that say the HST "will likely result in a small, one-time increase in the Consumer Price Index."
The B.C. government has set up a website for HST information here.