A simplified and harmonized tax system with competitive rates is a key component to improving the investment climate in Ontario and creating jobs. However, the province also needs to look to enhanced administration and enforcement activities as a way to improve the integrity of the tax system and build Ontario’s fiscal capacity.
Ontario businesses that employ aggressive tax planning as their competitive advantage must be challenged. To do this, the province must be as nimble and creative as those that use such strategies — those that, in effect, take valuable tax dollars away from important public services such as health care and education.
Enhancing the integrity of the tax administration system also requires a focused pursuit of those who owe the government money. Improving collections tools and processes will ensure that money currently owed will be collected and available for those services where they are most needed.
The overall strategy should cultivate a balance between providing a fair and competitive environment for businesses, while optimizing compliance with Ontario’s tax laws and taking action on outstanding debts.
Strengthening the Business Tax Base
Increased globalization is creating new complex business transactions that span the globe. As businesses become more international and transactions more complex, tax authorities around the world need to continue to enhance international taxation agreements to avoid double taxation as well as to avoid tax leakage. The federal government must continue to ensure that Canada and Ontario obtain their fair share of international taxation revenue.
Within Canada, the federal government and provincial and territorial governments must work together to ensure a fair allocation of tax revenues across the country. Specifically, both levels of government need to take additional steps to prevent aggressive tax planning to avoid tax leakage and ensure a fair allocation of tax revenue across Canada. Particular challenges to provincial governments include: i) the ability of corporations to eliminate or decrease payment of provincial corporate income tax through creative mechanisms; and ii) the shifting of losses across Canada to avoid or reduce taxation in the province where income was earned.
Currently, corporate groups can use complex transactions and federal administrative concessions to transfer losses among group members and across provincial borders. Complex transactions can also be used by corporate groups to shift income from a higher-tax jurisdiction to a lower-tax jurisdiction even though the corporation benefits from public services in the higher-tax jurisdiction. In addition, corporate groups can use aggressive international tax planning strategies to shift profits to foreign-based businesses. All of these activities can unduly reduce provincial tax revenue.
Recommendation 18-1: Work with the federal government to ensure that a fair share of a company’s worldwide income is allocated to Canada and the provinces.
Recommendation 18-2: Work with the federal government to address aggressive interprovincial and international tax avoidance activities by:
Recommendation 18-3: Collaborate with the federal government and other provinces to investigate options to tax corporations on a consolidated basis, with the purpose of ensuring a fair allocation of losses and income across Canada.
By pursuing these steps, Ontario could raise up to $200 million per year when fully phased in.
The federal and Ontario governments have taken significant steps to reduce the tax burden on people and businesses. At the same time, there is increasing pressure to fund important public services that citizens benefit from such as health care and education. The underground economy creates an unfair tax burden for taxpayers and makes it difficult for legitimate businesses to remain competitive with those participating in the underground economy. Addressing the underground economy creates a level playing field for taxpayers and businesses. It also helps provide greater protection to consumers who may not realize the risks of participating in the cash economy.
Statistics Canada estimates that the underground economy was about 2.2 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product in 2008, or about $36 billion. While the province has taken action to enhance collections and audits, more can be done to address the underground economy.
Other jurisdictions have implemented a number of measures that Ontario should consider. In particular, Quebec has been successful in tackling the underground economy and tax evasion through action in specific sectors:
Recommendation 18-4: Enhance Ontario’s ability to detect and recover revenues from underground economic activity by linking more databases to reported transactions for tax purposes.
Working with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario to ensure the protection of privacy, actions would include:
Recommendation 18-5: Review the adoption of government-authorized sales-recording modules in certain sectors (e.g., food services) to address “zapper” software (zappers remove a vendor’s record of sale).
The module would prevent businesses from deleting transactions to reduce taxes (installed with success in Quebec and parts of Europe).
Recommendation 18-6: Develop a concept of self-certification of electronic point-of-sales (ePOS) software. The self-certification is based on the principle of tax authorities developing and publishing a set of requirements for accounting software and ePOS systems.
Recommendation 18-7: Develop a public awareness campaign on the impact of the underground economy. For example, by using unregistered contractors or contractors who do not issue receipts, there are risks of not obtaining a warranty for repairs, risks of not being able to seek legal remedy for poor workmanship, and risks of liability for injuries or damages that occur on a customer’s premises.
Recommendation 18-8: Create employee deeming provisions where businesses substitute independent contractors for employees to avoid paying Ontario’s Employer Health Tax.
Recommendation 18-9: Establish a forum to discuss emerging issues and trends in the underground economy as well as innovations and best practices for addressing them. The forum should include representatives from various ministries, and federal and municipal governments as well as industry associations.2
Implementing these and other measures could yield the province more than $500 million per year when fully phased in.
Recent attention has been brought to the estimated $1 billion in uncollected fines related to the Provincial Offences Act (POA).3 Collection mechanisms should be improved so that the estimated $2.5 million unpaid POA fines can be recovered.
Recommendation 18-10: The Ministry of Finance should take the lead by providing assistance to municipalities in developing policy for the collection of unpaid Provincial Offences Act fines in the province.
Recommendation 18-11: Use licence and registration suspensions as a tool to facilitate the collection of Provincial Offences Act fines related to vehicles, including parking, speeding and automobile insurance violations.
Recommendation 18-12: Allow fines to be added via the property tax roll by adding Provincial Offences Act fines to the offender’s property tax bill, even if the property is jointly owned.
Recommendation 18-13: Offset tax refunds against unpaid Provincial Offences Act fines.
Centralized and Co-ordinated Collections
A number of ministries with accounts receivables either operate their own independent collection functions, have those activities performed/delivered by Ontario Shared Services, or do not perform collections activity beyond internal set-offs. As a result, the delivery of collections activities in the Ontario Public Service (OPS) is currently fragmented and carried out by a number of ministries using various methods and technology solutions. Recent reports by the Auditor General related to the various collection functions across the OPS found opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of collections activities and controls over accounts receivable and overdue accounts.
In the 2011 Ontario Budget, the government proposed to move towards a more co-ordinated and centralized collections function within the Ministry of Revenue (now the Ministry of Finance). Consolidating collections activities across the OPS would reduce costs and duplication, improve tracking and monitoring of overdue accounts, and reduce accounts receivable to better support the funding of key public services. Other jurisdictions have moved towards greater consolidation of collection functions to take advantage of economies of scale, reduce compliance costs for businesses and ensure optimal investment in technology systems.
Recommendation 18-14: Require that recipients of government grants or refundable tax credits, contracts, loans and loan guarantees are first in good standing with the government in terms of accounts receivable and have no outstanding taxes due before providing assistance.
Recommendation 18-15: Require that all ministries record Crown debt receivables in the enterprise financial system so that collection action can be commenced in a timely fashion.
Recommendation 18-16: Proceed with the 2011 Ontario Budget proposals by moving to rationalize the collection of non-tax revenue between Ontario Shared Services and the Ministry of Finance with the intent to consolidate, in a staged fashion, all non-tax and tax collection functions into the Ministry of Finance.
Recommendation 18-17: Develop a legislative framework to provide the Ministry of Finance with the authority to collect all provincial Crown debts and incorporate more effective collections tools and mechanisms.
Recommendation 18-18: Develop standard policies and practices across the Ontario Public Service for collections to ensure the optimum return for dollars spent.
Recommendation 18-19: Work with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario to ensure the protection of privacy in the implementation of these proposals.
Based on early estimates, the consolidation of collections and incorporation of more effective collection tools would generate more than $250 million per year when fully phased in.
Improving Audit Functions
In addition to improving the overall integrity and fairness of Ontario’s tax system, restoring fiscal balance will require the best use of administrative tools in the most efficient manner. This means ensuring that the government can identify activities that pose the greatest financial risk to focus resources more effectively and generate better results. The Ministry of Finance has developed a sophisticated risk assessment tool that employs data matching and data analysis to identify areas of greatest risk. This sophisticated audit risk tool provides important information to auditors/inspectors on where they should focus their attention. More targeted and informed enforcement strategies will lead to a system that is more efficient and responsive.
The Ministry of Finance’s risk assessment tool would provide a valuable resource for information sharing among ministries by co-ordinating and consolidating government-wide audits of companies. The Ministry of Finance is in a better position to recover funds on behalf of the province more efficiently with its risk assessment tool. Having a risk-based approach to auditing may reduce the number of times per annum a business is audited or inspected by the government.
Recommendation 18-20: Improve methods for information gathering and sharing across government, including making greater use of the Regulatory Modernization Act, in order to identify emerging and current issues to improve responsiveness in a compliance environment.
Recommendation 18-21: Use the Ministry of Finance’s risk assessment technology to better focus enterprise-wide audit activity on areas where rates of return are highest for the province.
Recommendation 18-22: Implement measures to better co-ordinate and consolidate government audits of companies within the Ministry of Finance to recover funds on behalf of the province.
Recommendation 18-23: Develop risk assessment approaches with other jurisdictions to help address audit issues that cross provincial and international boundaries.
Ontario could raise more than $50 million per year when fully phased in by implementing these measures.
In 2011–12, Ontario ministries plan to collect about $1.8 billion in revenues classified as user fees. There are over 400 types of user fees charged to individuals and businesses (e.g., drivers’ licences).
Most user fees are approved at a specific rate to recover all or some of the costs of providing a related service. There is no formal recurring process for changing fees to keep them up to date. Over time, the fees do not reflect inflation or the costs of providing the related service. This is one of the reasons revenues in the status quo do not tend to grow as rapidly as the (nominal) economy. Since 2003, there have been minimal increases to many of the most prominent user fees.
A decision on whether to move forward with user-fee changes to generate additional revenue is required. Two options to consider are full cost recovery and indexation.
Full Cost Recovery: Over $500 million in additional annual revenue is available if the government moves forward with full cost recovery on all user fees. Currently, most fees are not set at a level that results in the recovery of all costs associated with a service provided. Moving forward with full cost recovery is consistent with the 2009 Auditor General’s Report on User Fees that recommended the government consider full cost recovery for fees. However, there are some fees the government may not want to increase for public policy reasons (e.g., user’s ability to pay, to encourage certain behaviour, etc.).
Indexation: Indexing existing user fees annually by the rate of inflation of two per cent could result in additional revenues of about $36 million in 2012–13 to $227 million by 2017–18. Indexation would allow the government to avoid periodic steep fee increases, and better reflects the cost of providing services. Indexation is consistent with the federal government’s approach, which recently introduced reforms to regularly adjust fees, and with Quebec and Nova Scotia, where most fees are indexed to the consumer price index.
Indexation is also consistent with the 2009 Auditor General’s Report on User Fees (which recommended that the government establish a process for the regular review of fees).
Of course, a blend of the two approaches could provide the best of both worlds.
Recommendation 18-24: Instead of user fees remaining in fixed nominal terms, they should be updated using a blend of full cost recovery and indexation and be phased in over the next two years.
The Commission’s mandate does not allow us to recommend tax increases. However, we have noted throughout the report that certain aspects of the tax system work to ensure that revenues do not tend to grow in sync with the overall economy, defined as nominal GDP. As such, the Status Quo Scenario features a decline in the tax burden, defined broadly as the ratio of revenues to nominal GDP.
This, of course, compounds the difficulty of returning to a balanced budget. Allowing the overall tax burden to decline magnifies the severity of program spending restraint required. This severity could be alleviated if taxes begin to keep pace with economic activity.
Consistent with our mandate, we have not incorporated any increases in revenues from such reform into our Preferred Scenario. We simply note for consideration the relatively straightforward reforms that could be implemented to prevent the overall tax burden from declining over time.
The main sources of this downward bias in the tax burden are education property taxes, business education taxes and a number of excise taxes that are levied on the volume of products sold rather than the value at which they are sold.
Provincial-Municipal Relationship and Property Tax
A key feature of the provincial-municipal fiscal relationship is the fact that the property tax base is used to support municipal services and to fund a portion of Ontario’s elementary and secondary education costs. In 2010, property taxes raised over $23 billion in Ontario, including over $6.6 billion4 in provincial education property tax revenues. The municipal portion of the tax raises $16.4 billion, and is the largest single source of revenue for municipalities.
The province has proven to be a good partner in sharing the property tax base. At the time of Local Services Realignment in 1998, the province transferred $2.5 billion in residential tax revenue to municipalities. By 2011, the value of the transferred residential education tax revenue had grown to an estimated $3.1 billion as a result of non-reassessment-related growth, such as new construction. In addition, the province has adopted a policy to fully offset reassessment impacts when resetting residential and business education tax rates. This practice of cutting education tax rates has been positive for municipalities, as it has offset the impact of municipal tax increases on taxpayers and reduces pressure on municipalities to limit tax increases. For more details on the provincial-municipal relationship, see Chapter 20, Intergovernmental Relations.
Property Tax Trends
Since 2000, there has been significant growth in municipal property taxes, which have increased 70 per cent. However, the growth in education tax revenues has been relatively flat, averaging only one per cent per year. This occurred over a period when property values more than doubled as a result of property reassessments.
The level of education property tax revenues since 2000 has decreased by 10 per cent in real terms. At the same time, funding for education has increased. These factors have contributed to a significant decrease in education property tax revenues as a share of education expenditures, from 44 per cent in 1998–99 to 30 per cent in 2010–11. If the property tax component of the Ontario Energy and Property Tax Credit had been included, as it is in provincial reporting of education property tax revenue, the share of education expenditures funded by education property tax revenues would have been even lower.
The decrease in education funding supported by property taxes is primarily the result of a long-standing provincial policy to fully offset reassessment impacts when resetting business and residential education tax rates. For example, the residential education tax rate has been cut in half since 1998. While this has contributed to nominal stability in the property tax base, in real terms, this practice has reduced provincial education tax revenues available to support Ontario’s education system.
The current education tax rate-setting practice raises a number of concerns, including the continued decrease in education tax revenues in real terms. As property tax revenues decrease as a share of education expenditures, provincial transfers to school boards increase to offset this decline. Other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, have recognized the fiscal challenges associated with this practice, and do not fully offset reassessment impacts when setting education tax rates. In British Columbia, the business and residential education property tax rates are reset to increase revenues by an inflationary factor. In fact, tax rate reductions that allow for some measure of inflationary revenue increase should be considered in Ontario to maintain a stable level of revenue in real terms.
Business Education Taxes
An additional concern related to education property taxes in Ontario is the wide range of business education tax (BET) rates across the province. Ideally, a provincial tax rate would be the same across all regions of the province, similar to the provincial uniform rate for residential properties.
However, the province continues to set a range of BET rates, which vary across municipalities. There is no policy rationale for the variation in BET rates other than it being a result of historical assessment and tax inequities that were in place for many years prior to the province taking over responsibility for education tax rate setting in 1998.
The variance in BET rates distorts efficient business location decisions and places many businesses in the province at a disadvantage, therefore having a negative impact on jobs and the provincial economy overall. These distortions are particularly difficult to justify when there are large differences between neighbouring municipalities, such as Toronto and the 905 regions. While the tax inequities can be expected to have been capitalized into the value of properties, it is still important to address these gradually over time.
In fact, in 2007 the province announced a BET reduction plan to address these distortions and inequities. Under the plan, high BET rates are being reduced to a target rate by 2014, saving businesses $540 million annually, once fully implemented. The phased-in approach of the BET reduction plan was designed to minimize potential windfall gains and/or losses associated with the capitalization of abrupt changes in tax burdens.
Since introducing the plan, the province has made major progress in the following areas:
Education tax rate-setting policies and the BET reduction plan have significantly reduced the education tax revenue available to support education expenditures. Furthermore, the current BET reduction plan does not address municipalities with low BET rates. By not addressing low rates, the province will have difficulty addressing distortions and inequities in the education property tax base. These could be addressed by moving towards a policy of a single provincewide BET rate for all regions of the province, while also limiting the cost of the BET reductions.
Recommendation 18-25: Conduct a review of education tax rate-setting policies for residential and business tax rates to maintain a stable level of education tax revenues in real terms.
Recommendation 18-26: Continue to implement the business education tax (BET) reduction plan while considering options for adjusting the plan in order to avoid part or all of the revenue loss associated with reducing high BET rates by also increasing low BET rates.
Recommendation 18-27: Build on the existing business education tax (BET) reduction plan to address historical BET rate inequities and distortions by gradually implementing a single uniform BET rate.
Implementing these policies could ensure a more equitable business tax system, while providing a significant increase in revenues, up to just over $1 billion by 2017–18.
The Ministry of Finance is responsible for administration of the province’s tax on tobacco products imposed under the Tobacco Tax Act.
The tobacco tax is a key component of Ontario’s smoke-free strategy. Since 2003, a number of policy and enforcement tools in both the Tobacco Tax Act and the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, including tobacco tax rate increases, have helped to reduce tobacco consumption by over 20 per cent.
However, in recent years, tobacco consumption has “flatlined” after more than a decade of decline in smoking rates. The availability of cheap illegal tobacco products makes it easier for youth to start smoking and removes an incentive for existing smokers to quit. Illegal tobacco supplies have also adversely affected provincial revenues. In a 2008 report, the Auditor General estimated the loss of tobacco tax revenue for fiscal 2006–07 as being in the range of $500 million.
Improved enforcement efforts, especially those over the past three years, have generated results. Between Apr. 1, 2008 and Sept. 30, 2011, Ontario seized more than 172 million illegal cigarettes. In 2010–11, provincial tobacco tax revenue increased by $77 million over the previous fiscal year to $1.16 billion.
On June 1, 2011, the Ontario legislature approved Bill 186 — Supporting Smoke-Free Ontario by Reducing Contraband Tobacco Act — with all-party support. Bill 186 provides the government with important new tools to enhance enforcement while also providing legislative authority to enter into agreements with First Nations communities related to administration and enforcement of the Tobacco Tax Act on-reserve.
Recommendation 18-28: Further develop and implement results-focused strategies to deter illegal tobacco, including enforcing existing laws and developing new partnerships and legislative and regulatory tools.
These strategies could involve:
Bill 186 measures, in combination with additional enforcement tools and approaches, including partnerships with key stakeholders, could result in increased revenue of up to $225 million per year when fully phased in.
Tax Value, Not Volume
Taxes on many so-called “sin” goods, such as gasoline, diesel, tobacco, beer and wine, apply to the volume of the product, not the value (these are known as specific, not ad valorem, taxes). This means when prices rise, revenues from the taxes do not respond; they rise only if there is an increase in the volume of the goods sold. The volume of tobacco sales and hence the revenue have been trending down. Volumes and revenues from gasoline and diesel have been growing very slowly.
Future revenue effects of taxing values rather than volumes are difficult to estimate because they depend on changes in the specific commodity prices. We can be reasonably certain the pace of overall consumer price index (CPI) inflation will be around the Bank of Canada’s two per cent target. But prices for individual components may deviate substantially; they could even decline.
Rather than attempt an inevitably imprecise forecast, we will illustrate the sensitivity of revenues to values rather than volumes by calculating the impact on historical revenues had the taxes been ad valorem rather than specific. Had gasoline and diesel taxes been converted to ad valorem in 2000, revenues in 2010 would have been $1.9 billion higher than actually recorded. The cumulative incremental gain in revenues over the period — and hence, everything else being equal, the decline in public debt at the end of 2010 — would have been $10.2 billion. Had the tobacco tax been converted to ad valorem in 2006, revenues would have been $0.4 billion higher than recorded, with a cumulative gain over the period of $1.1 billion. There would have been little change in net beer and wine revenues. To the extent the higher taxes induced lower consumption, the revenue impacts would be somewhat lower than shown above.
There are several ways to capture the revenue impacts of changes in value: the specific taxes could be converted to ad valorem form; the specific tax rates could be indexed; or the specific tax rates could be adjusted periodically.
The education property tax is effectively a specific tax as well. By offsetting any increases in assessed property value, revenue only reflects changes in volumes. Having taxes be in step with the value of the property would provide increased revenues for the province.
Recommendation 18-29: Replace taxes tied to a good’s volume with taxes tied to the good’s value (i.e., replace specific taxes with ad valorem taxes or otherwise capture changes in values).
|Revenue Measures Included in the Preferred Scenario|
|Non-Tax Revenue: Full Cost Recovery Part 12||50||75||100||150||200||225|
|Government Business Enterprises: Retain and
|Total Revenue Measures||475||725||1,050||1,485||1,750||1,950|
|Revenue Measures Discussed But Not Included in the Preferred Scenario|
|Non-Tax Revenue: Full Cost Recovery Part 22||–||186||422||372||322||297|
|Non-Tax Revenue: Indexation of User Fees3||36||73||110||148||187||227|
|Residential and Business Education Taxes4||125||375||625||775||925||1,075|
|Taxing Value, Not Volume5||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|1 Some collections activity may only reduce cash requirements and not result in a bottom-line improvement.|
|2 As a conservative estimate, only a portion of the full cost recovery of non-tax revenue was accounted for in the Preferred Scenario. The full impact could be as high as $522 million ($225 million plus $297 million).|
|3 Indexation applied to the estimated user-fee revenue base of $1.8 billion, using the rate of inflation (two per cent annually). These amounts should not be added to the estimates for full cost recovery because that would involve an element of double-counting.|
|4 Represents two per cent inflation increase on residential and business properties and increasing low BET rates to offset the cost of the BET reduction plan. Assumes implementation for 2013 calendar year. Revenue impacts may vary based on reassessment impacts.|
|5 Future revenue impacts would depend on price changes for the commodities. The text provides an illustration of the impact on historical revenues had ad valorem taxes been applied to gasoline, diesel, tobacco, beer and wine.|
1. For example, Quebec recently introduced a bill to regulate non-bank operators of automatic teller machines, foreign-exchange counters and money transfer offices, obliging them to obtain a licence and make reports to Quebec’s Autorité des marchés financiers. The goal of this bill is to combat possible tax evasion and money laundering.
2. In December 2010, the Ministry of Labour’s Expert Panel on Occupational Health and Safety recommended a provincewide underground economy strategy.
3. Ontario Association of Police Services Boards, “Provincial Offences Act: Unpaid Fines, A $Billion Problem,” 2011, p. 5.
4. All education tax revenue numbers included in this paper exclude the property tax component of the Ontario Energy and Property Tax Credit, which is netted against education property tax in provincial Budget documents.