B.C. VIEWS: Tax my car, not my income

Opponents of the HST can't seem to resist making the tax sound worse than it really is.

The NDP has been surfing on a wave of indignation about the introduction of the HST for nearly two years.

VICTORIA – I recently bought a used vehicle. Bitter experience with used cars sold privately led me to make the purchase at an established, reputable dealership, and I’m pleased with the result.

The first car I ever bought was a private sale. A young man showed off the old car he had painted himself, while his mother smiled and offered homemade lemonade. Sold for $600.

The choice of drink proved appropriate when the engine clattered to a final halt a week later. It was then I discovered that the crankcase contained mostly STP Oil Treatment, to conceal the engine’s true state.

At the dealership this spring, the harmonized sales tax was not a hot topic. Like most goods, new and used vehicles were subject to 12 per cent PST and GST before, and they are subject to 12 per cent HST now.

When I mentioned this in a news report last week, an astute reader in Nanaimo reminded me that it’s not quite that simple. Vehicles, boats and aircraft sold by private individuals are exempt from GST. This was one of the populist concessions the Mulroney government made in an effort to placate angry voters 20 years ago. In B.C., prior to July 2010, private sales were subject to seven-per-cent PST only.

During the hubbub over the implementation of the HST in its 2010 budget, the B.C. Liberal government also increased tax on private vehicle sales by five per cent, from seven to 12 per cent. The stated reason was to provide “comparable treatment” for private and commercial sales of used vehicles.

This provoked an exchange of partisan accusations that typically passes for debate in the B.C. legislature. It’s a payoff to car dealers, the NDP screamed. You guys opposed all of our income tax cuts and now you’re pretending to support lower taxes, the B.C. Liberals yelled back.

Out in the real world, one can observe the effect of a tax structure that gives an advantage to private sellers.

Municipal governments call them “curbers.” They use their garage, driveway and street to repair and market an endless series of used cars. Whether they are crooks or not, their efforts are every bit as appealing to the neighbourhood as the guy with multiple illegal suites whose tenants plug up the parking for the whole block.

In each case, they violate zoning rules and hog services for personal benefit. And if you think they pay income or other taxes on their home businesses, I have a 1973 Pinto you might want to test-drive.

The subject of used cars came up last week when NDP leader Adrian Dix belatedly launched his own anti-HST tour. Apparently he’s having second thoughts about letting Bill Vander Zalm set NDP tax policy based on a world government conspiracy theory.

Dix’s first media event was staged in a Burnaby kitchen. The homeowner dismissed the $350 HST rebate he has been offered to offset costs such as summer camp for his two kids, saying that will be gone several times over if he buys a used car.

This clearly implies that HST has been extended to used cars. This is the sort of claim that drives much of the rage against it, as people simply scan their bills for those hated three letters.

There are signs that people understand their taxes better, however. An Angus Reid poll last week found that 58 per cent of British Columbians now prefer to pay taxes on their consumption rather than their income.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

twitter.com/tomfletcherbc

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