Vaughn Palmer: Opposition fears B.C. NDP has hidden agenda for homeowner grant

Opinion: Perhaps the pandemic-driven fiscal crisis will lead the New Democrats to conclude that the grant is no longer untouchable

Article content

VICTORIA — The B.C. government is taking control of applications for the homeowner grant, ending the decades-long practice where eligible recipients applied when paying their municipal property taxes.

Finance Minister Selina Robinson emphasized that the basic grant and grants for seniors, disabled persons and rural residents are not changing for now.  Neither is the eligibility threshold, which is tied to a home’s assessed value.

The switch, to take effect this year, is designed to lift the administrative burden from local government, said Robinson in introducing the enabling legislation on Wednesday.

“Local governments support this change, as it ensures that they will not need to collect and store sensitive personal information,” the finance minister assured the legislature.

Local governments are doubtless relieved to no longer have to vet qualifications and double check that people are not claiming in more than one jurisdiction.


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Robinson also said that the new, “streamlined,” on-line application process “will make it faster and easier for homeowners to apply.”

But the existing application process is hardly onerous, consisting as it does of checking a box or two on the property tax bill and then adding one’s signature.

The government is toughening the application process by collecting social insurance numbers. Robinson said the requirement adds “rigour to homeowner grant administration to help fight tax evasion, reduce fraud and ensure people are paying the right amount of tax.”

The Opposition B.C. Liberals say people are asking why they now have to include their SIN to get a grant that has been available for decades.

“What I see under the NDP government is more about control,” said Liberal MLA Mike Bernier. “It’s about gathering information that they can use on people.”

With the New Democrats having signaled their intentions last year, Bernier said he is hearing concerns from constituents about the SIN requirement: “Why do they want it and how are they going to use it in years down the road that could negatively affect me?”

Bernier speculated that the current change could be the first step in a longer-term targeting of homeowners: “When you look at the record of this government of targeting and almost penalizing homeowners through taxation … there is a reason why homeowners might be a little skeptical about why government wants to centralize and start taking on this information.”


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

The New Democrats also said the new system would be more “fair.”

But the grant is already open to all who qualify, which is most homeowners. The New Democrats, like previous governments, set the threshold to ensure that more than 90 per cent of homeowners will get the grant.

Liberal MLA Tom Shypitka wondered how just changing the application process would make the system more fair.

“What’s this leading to?” he challenged.  “Only time will tell, but some are very worried about where this may go — maybe the elimination of the homeowner’s grant altogether.”

The Liberal insinuations brought a strong denial from the government side.

“There are no hidden agendas here,” insisted NDP MLA Jinny Sims, the former cabinet minister and now backbencher.

“Only my colleagues across the way, in opposition, could turn a piece of legislation that actually assists another level of government with administration and to lower the workload for them and streamline — as something nefarious and something underhanded that is going on with a different agenda.”

Nefarious? Underhanded? The ex-minister doth protest too much.

Adding to suspicions were passing comments from Green MLA Adam Olsen.

He supports the immediate goal of lifting the administrative burden from local government. But he, too, speculated that bigger changes might be in store for the homeowner grant.

“It is important to recognize that the government has had some advice around some changes that could be made to the homeowner grant,” Olsen reminded the house.


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

He pledged to ask Robinson, during clause by clause debate on the legislation, whether the New Democrats were contemplating other changes to the homeowner grant down the road.

Three years ago an NDP government-appointed tax panel recommended the homeowner grant be abolished, saying it was “inconsistent with principles of progressivity, administrative efficiency and fairness.”

The panel, headed by a former NDP finance minister, Paul Ramsey, recommended the near-universal grant be replaced with a tax credit program for home owners and renters, based on income and phased out for high earners.

It might be easier to means-test the grant if the government had control of the application process coupled with all those SINs.

So perhaps the Liberals and Green MLAs are on to something, albeit not for this year as the parameters are already set.

The basic grant is $570, seniors and people who are disabled are eligible for $845, and rural British Columbians are in line for between $770 and $1,045 depending on their circumstances. The grant is phased out at a rate of $5 per $1,000 in value for properties assessed at more than  $1.625 million.

The province says the combined grants cost it $850 million in the current year, so even a partial phase out would be a revenue windfall.

But it could be risky in political terms.

The grant has been a mainstay of tax relief for the vast majority of B.C. homeowners since Premier W.A.C. Bennett created it in 1957.

Succeeding governments have adjusted the amounts, and left the basic principle intact.

But perhaps the pandemic-driven fiscal crisis will lead the New Democrats to conclude that the grant is no longer untouchable.

[email protected] 


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

File source

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button