Election discourse should include transformative tax reform proposals for Ontario

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, April 25, 2018

So far, the build-up to Ontario’s 2018 election has focused largely on personalities. This is a pity, since it’s hard to think of a jurisdiction in North America more desperate for serious discussion about innovative, pro-growth public policy than Ontario.

When it comes to economic growth, government debt, private-sector job creation or median household income growth, Ontario’s performance over the past decade has been the worst or among the worst in Canada. So it’s high time public discourse in Ontario pivot to important policy issues and big ideas for change.

Perhaps the best place to start is a fundamental re-examination of Ontario’s approach to personal income taxation. Ontario’s uncompetitive personal income tax (PIT) system, with seven brackets and a top combined federal/provincial marginal rate of 53.53 per cent, discourages high-skilled Ontarians from engaging in productive activity such as work and entrepreneurship, and creating opportunities in Ontario.

Comparing Ontario’s top PIT rate to other jurisdictions underscores our competitiveness problem. Again, the top marginal rate is critically important because it influences the economic decision-making of doctors, lawyers, professionals, entrepreneurs and other high-skilled professionals. At 53.53 per cent, Ontario’s is the second highest top combined federal/provincial (or federal/state) marginal income tax rate in Canada and the United States. Nearby states with whom Ontario competes including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana all have top marginal rates more than 10 percentage points lower.

Another way to boost the province’s growth prospects and competitiveness would be to reduce Ontario’s general corporate income tax (CIT) rate.

Recent federal corporate tax reform in the U.S. has wiped away Ontario’s former business tax advantage over all U.S. states, harming the province’s ability to attract entrepreneurs and investment. As noted in a recent Fraser Institute study, to address this challenge, the Ontario government could tax all taxable income—personal income and general business income—at the same single rate of 8 per cent. This reform, would transform Ontario into one of the most attractive tax jurisdictions in North America for investment and talent.

On the PIT, this reform would leave Ontario with a top combined rate of 41 per cent. Instead of the second highest marginal PIT rate in Canada and the U.S., Ontario would have the 12th lowest.

On the CIT, a 3.5 point reduction from 11.5 per cent to 8 per cent would leave Ontario with one of the lowest combined federal/provincial statutory general corporate tax rates in the two countries.

Some may object that such tax reductions, which would cost the province approximately $11 billion in 2018/19 (including provisions to ensure lower- and middle-income families are not made worse-off by the changes), are not fiscally prudent. But they are affordable if the government is willing to exercise spending restraint. Specifically, holding nominal spending for this fiscal year at 2017-18 levels (instead of proceeding with a planned 6 spending per cent increase) would “pay for” more than half of this proposed reform. One more year of frozen nominal spending would cover the remainder, and then some. Clearly, pro-growth tax reform is possible if it’s a priority.

After a long pre-campaign focused largely on personalities, a pivot to policy is overdue. Ontario needs big ideas—hopefully, this proposed tax reform, to make Ontario one of the most attractive jurisdictions on the continent, will help foster this type of discussion.

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