Gas taxes, political hot air and the real questions

Given last week’s gas price gusher that propelled pump sticker shock beyond even the last record-breaking penny point set in 2012, it’s little wonder Premier Stephen McNeil rushed for the cover of a sort-of pledge to cut Nova Scotia’s portion of the harmonized sales tax it currently tacks on to the top of the taxes already charged on gasoline.

It’s even less wonder the premier coupled his call with enough caveats to cap any expectation of success. Ottawa itself would also have to forego some of the revenue it collects, McNeil said. And it wouldn’t do for this to be a Nova Scotia-only solution; McNeil wants the other Atlantic provinces to climb on board before it would be implemented.

And it’s no wonder at all the premier’s finance minister put McNeil’s baby to bed and to sleep.

“It would be really irresponsible,” Diana Whalen explained, “to start rebating taxes or changing our tax system in a way that would just put us deeper in a hole.”

By the Liberal reckoning, we won’t reach a balanced budget — NDP-style or real? —for at least three more years, which would, of course, bring us close to the next provincial election. Do I sense a pattern here? But I digress…

So Stephen McNeil’s government will/may possibly/who knows remove the hated, roughly four-cents-a-litre tax around 2017… if the books are balanced, if Ottawa agrees, if the rest of the region goes along and if the planets line up in a certain way…

Which is to say he won’t.

You have to sympathize with McNeil, who is caught between a rock and a bigger, harder rock when it comes to his fiscal wiggle room. Much as he might like to eliminate an unfair tax, forgoing the revenue it generates would be — to quote his finance minister — “really irresponsible.”

The solution though is not the Stephen McNeil shell game, or Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie simplistic, I-can-say-whatever-I-like-because-I-won’t-have-to-do-it opposition high road: “if it’s wrong, it’s wrong.”

The reality is we need to finally, belatedly take a serious look at our overall tax system. We need to ask why we’ve spent the last decade continually cutting corporate taxes while our deficit soars and debt piles up?

If we begin to ask the right questions, we might come up with more useful answers…

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