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Researchers suggest Ottawa eliminate health transfers, give provinces room to tax

Report recommends that equalization payments be maintained and that the Canadian Institute for Health Information be given more power.

May 20, 2021  The Canadian Press

A new report by researchers at the Universite de Montreal’s HEC business school is calling for the end of federal transfers payments to the provinces.

The report published on May 20 suggests that ending the health and social transfers — while giving provinces more space to raise tax revenue of their own — could end the “tug of war” between the provinces and the federal government over the money.

Released by the Centre for Productivity and Prosperity — Walter J. Somers Foundation at HEC, the report recommends that equalization payments be maintained and that the Canadian Institute for Health Information be given more power, and turned into a sort of Parliamentary Budget Officer for health care, in an effort the make provincial health-care systems more accountable to the public.

The plan would require political will from both the federal and the provincial governments, said Robert Gagne, the director of the HEC centre and one of the authors of the study.

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“There are things we’ve done historically (that were) more radical than this,” Gagne said in an interview. “If the will is there, it’s doable. Do they want to do it? That’s another question.”

He said he worries the current system works for both levels of government, even though the provinces regularly complain about the amount of money they receive.

Under the current system, provincial governments can have their cake and eat it too, he said: “They don’t have to bear the burden of taxing, and they receive a cheque from the federal government. The downside of this is the federal government can say, ‘I’ll send you a smaller cheque.'”

It also allows the federal government to enter into areas of provincial jurisdiction, he said.

The provinces are currently calling for a $28-billion increase in annual federal funding for health care — from $42 billion to $70 billion.

The report suggests Ottawa could end transfer payments and give power over corporate taxation, currently worth a little more than $50 billion, and half the GST, worth $18.7 billion, to the provinces. The total, $68.7 billion. represents almost exactly the amount the provinces are calling for.

“The system is out of balance and a bit unhealthy too,” Gagne said, because the capacity of different levels of government in Canada to levy taxes isn’t proportionate to their responsibilities.

The approach would only require the federal government to cede space to the provinces, so that provincial governments can raise the revenue to meet their needs. Gagne said that has happened before. When former prime minister Stephen Harper lowered the GST by two percentage points, Quebec increased its sales tax proportionately.

Gagne said that in his proposed system, equalization would continue to ensure that provinces are able to offer comparable services, even if they don’t have the same ability to tax corporations.


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