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One week back the new coalition government of British Columbia unveiled its first budget update, a document containing a number of measures largely reflecting campaign promises.
Tucked away in the 136-page document were numerous tax changes – a proposed hike in carbon taxes, a reduction in the small business income tax, and a hike in income tax for those earning above $150,000. And something from left field: a plan to eliminate a 30-year-old program that aims to bring financial business to Vancouver that otherwise would not be attracted.
Known as the International Business Activity Program it owes its genesis to the days when Michael Wilson was the federal finance minister. Back then Ottawa approved a plan to allow Vancouver and Montreal to become international financial centres.
The goal was to bring new incremental banking business back to Canada, a move that would create jobs. In return for bringing new international business to those cities, the federal and provincial governments would provide a tax rebate on corporate income taxes. (The provincial corporate income tax rate is 11 per cent, slated to go to 12 per cent. Ottawa stopped providing rebates in the late 1990s.)
And now it’s set to be eliminated – provided it receives the approval of the legislature. The budget documents indicate that the “taxpayer impacts” will be $5 million in 2017/18 and $10 million in 2018/19. Given that the tax rebates are a cost to the treasury, the impacts will be a positive for the provincial coffers. (There is no rebate on federal income tax.)
But there is opposition to the provincial government’s plan, including Advantage BC, the entity that emerged from the International Financial Centre Vancouver. It now runs the program that requires members to join and pay fees. (About 80 firms, all of which have been approved by the provincial finance department, have become fee-paying members.)
Colin Hansen, a former provincial Liberal finance minister who runs Advantage BC, says the program “has been strategic in terms of some companies choosing B.C. as a place of operation. And we know of companies who would have moved out of the province had it not been for the access to this type of program,” he added, noting that his organization has recruited a number of the member-firms to come to Vancouver.
But Hansen is ready to discuss the advantages of the program as well as the growing standing that Vancouver occupies in the global financial world.
“When we are pitching Vancouver we run through the sales pitch, and the international business activity program is one part of that,” he said, noting that on a global measure, Vancouver is now ranked 17 versus 33 a decade back.
In June, Hansen’s organization gave a consulting contract to a Vancouver-based firm to analyze the costs and the benefits of the program. (The last study on the program was done a decade ago by MMK Consulting. It covered the period 2001-2009 and concluded the program was a positive in terms of jobs and revenue.)
The latest report, scheduled to be completed next week and which will be made available to the politicians and officials, will also focus on the role Vancouver plays as a gateway to Asia Pacific. “It will be both qualitative and quantitative,” said Hansen, noting that “it’s clear to me that the provincial government made this decision without any substantive analysis,” he added.
We called the B.C. government on the plan to eliminate the program, but didn’t receive a comment. A news report at the time of the budget said the program was eliminated because it was not providing a “beneficial return.”