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British Columbians are ready for a thoughtful conversation about taxes

Debates about taxes in BC can be as much a blood-sport as politics. But a major new opinion poll conducted by Environics Research (commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) offers some surprising insights into what people of different political stripes think about taxes, inequality and public services.

 
It turns out we aren’t nearly as divided on these issues as you might think. On the whole, British Columbians appear ready to approach issues of tax reform – and even tax increases – with more openness than our political leaders give us credit for.
 
The overwhelming majority of British Columbians (90%) think there should be income tax increases for those at the top. As to where those higher taxes should kick in, a clear majority (57%) says at $100,000 per year of income. A majority (67%) also think major corporations are asked to pay less tax than they should.
 
Those results aren’t terribly surprising given the high level of concern respondents have about inequality. British Columbians want to see a significant redistribution of income — away from the richest 20%, towards the middle and the bottom. Three quarters of us also say we’d have greater confidence in a government that reduces the income gap between the wealthy and others.
 
What is surprising is the extent to which these responses cut across party lines. For example, it’s not just those who would vote NDP or Green in a provincial election who think high-income individuals and corporations should pay more tax. A majority of Liberal and Conservative voters say the same.
 
Perhaps this widespread appetite for tax fairness reflects the growing consensus, including among many business leaders, that extreme inequality is as much an economic problem as it is a moral one.
 
Or perhaps it reflects the reality that tax cuts over the last decade have contributed to the growing gap by delivering the lion’s share of benefits to the richest 10% and 1%. Meanwhile, higher consumption taxes, user fees and MSP premiums have hit modest and middle-income earners hardest. Indeed, the richest British Columbians now pay a lower overall tax rate (all provincial taxes combined) than everyone else.
 
Of course it’s easy to say someone else should pay more taxes. That’s why it comes as a further surprise to discover the openness British Columbians show when it comes to potential tax increases for themselves. When initially asked a general question about their own level of taxation, most people feel they pay too much – no surprise given the cost of living challenges many wrestle with. But, when taxes are linked to concrete policies that can reduce inequality and improve our quality of life, the story changes.
 
Respondents were asked if they would consider paying a slightly higher share of their own income to provincial income tax (for most people representing a few hundred dollars per year) in order to help bring about 11 different policy changes. The changes included things like providing more access to home and community based health care for seniors, increasing welfare benefit rates, creating a $10 per day child care program, protecting BC’s forests and endangered species, or reducing class sizes in K-12 education.
 
The results are striking: 68% say they are willing to pay a higher share of their income in order to help bring about 4 or more of the 11 policies. And once again, this held true for majorities regardless of which political party people intended to vote for in the next provincial election.
 
Equally surprising, when we tested to see if the willingness to pay varied across a host of demographic differences, only one stood out – age. Younger respondents (aged 18 to 44) are significantly more willing to pay more tax than their older counterparts.
 
These results are hopeful. British Columbians know we face a budget crunch. We know we need more revenues if we are going to deal with challenges like the affordability crisis squeezing so many families (in housing and child care in particular), inequality and climate change. The results reflect an understanding taxes are fundamentally about our quality of life, and a preference to pay for needed goods and services as citizens, through our taxes, rather than privately, as consumers.
 
That said, this opinion research also tells us that people aren’t interested in writing a blank cheque to government. They are prepared to entertain tax increases, but only under the right conditions. People want greater transparency and accountability from their governments. They want to know the money will be well spent on needed programs. And most importantly, they want to have a say in how decisions are made.
 
It’s time for a thoughtful, democratic conversation about taxes. The idea that we should debate whether taxes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is old. The questions we need to answer now are: what are the things we want to pay for together, and how can we raise the money needed in a way that ensures everyone pays a fair share.
 
Randy Galawan was  a co-author of this column.  Galawan is a public engagement specialist. The opinion poll was conducted by Environics Research with 1,023 respondents using an online survey. Beyond the 1%: What British Columbians think about taxes, inequality and public services is available at  www.policyalternatives.ca/bc-tax-opinion.

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