The Wynne government is showing all the signs it will announce tax breaks for small business Tuesday, as companies in Ontario brace for a sharp rise in the minimum wage expected in January.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa is promising that his fall economic statement, to be delivered in the legislature shortly after 3 p.m., will contain unspecified “help” targeted at the 400,000 small businesses in this province.
But even if you don’t own or work for a small business, the statement will be worth watching, Typically a mid-year update to the budget, this edition will give you a taste of how Kathleen Wynne and her Ontario Liberals plan to frame their re-election campaign, with voting day set for June 7.
“I will be announcing a whole set of new comprehensive initiatives to help small businesses in Ontario reduce costs and become even more competitive, to help them improve their bottom line,” Sousa said in a speech last week to the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
This could mean anything from trimming how much small businesses pay in employer health tax to a lower corporate tax rate on small-business profits.
CBC News revealed first in July that business groups have been pushing for tax cuts to offset the extra wage costs of the looming minimum wage hike.
Bill 148, expected to pass in the coming days, contains a range of labour reforms and a timetable to boost Ontario’s minimum wage from the current $11.60 per hour to $14 effective Jan. 1, then to $15 per hour in January 2019.
“The cost of doing business in Ontario is going up in 2018,” said Plamen Petkov, Ontario vice-president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). “The drastic increase in the minimum wage and the labour reforms that are coming up are going to have a very significant impact on those businesses that currently are struggling.”
Both the CFIB and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which represents 60,000 businesses and industry groups, are looking to the economic statement for relief on both payroll and corporate taxes.
“A number of these measures we believe have to be combined,” said Karl Baldauf, the chamber’s vice-president in charge of government relations. “It’s only by leveraging a full suite of options will you be able to make businesses more competitive.”
Possible tax cuts for Ontario small businesses
- Employer health tax
Companies pay a health premium to the province equal to 1.95 per cent of staff wages. There is an exemption on the first $450,000 of gross payroll per year, so the smallest businesses with only a few employees don’t have to pay. The government could increase the exemption, lower the rate for the first $1 million of payroll, or cut the employer health tax rate across the board.
- Corporate income tax – Small business deduction
Ontario’s corporate tax rate is 11.5 per cent, the second-lowest in Canada. The corporate tax rate on the first $500,000 of profit (called the small business deduction) is 4.5 per cent, which is second-highest in Canada.
The government could bring the small business deduction tax rate down to three per cent, which would put Ontario’s rate in the middle of the pack among the provinces. Or it could boost the amount of the deduction, giving businesses the lower corporate tax rate on, for instance, their first $1 million of profit.
- Business education tax
Just as homeowners pay the province an annual education tax based on the assessed value of their properties, the owners of commercial properties pay a “business education tax.” The rates are set by the province, but the business rates vary widely across Ontario and are typically four to five times higher than the residential education tax rate.
The government halted a plan to reduce business education tax rates back in 2014, citing the deficit. With the budget on track to be balanced, this reduction may be back on the table.
Sousa denies that any tax cuts to be announced Tuesday will amount to a trade-off against the higher minimum wage.
“We’re actually trying to respond to what’s going on south of the border,” said a senior government official speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s about making sure that our businesses are competitive enough to go up against American firms at a time when there’s a changing regulatory environment in the U.S.”
Congress is poised to vote as early as this week on a plan initiated by President Donald Trump that would slash the top corporate tax rate to 20 per cent from its current level of 35 per cent.
“Ontario’s corporate tax rate is competitive with the United States right now,” said Baldauf. “But any effort by the United States to lower their corporate tax rate will make it more and more of a challenge for Ontario to hang our hat on that as a competitive advantage.”
With an election campaign just six months away, the Ontario Liberals will absolutely want to avoid antagonizing small business. You can be certain they won’t follow in the footsteps of their federal cousins, in which proposed tax changes that would have hit incorporated professionals and small family-owned companies blew up in the face of federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Whatever tax breaks Sousa offers to small business Tuesday, expect his speech to be peppered with references to “fairness and opportunity” for all Ontarians. This is the kind of messaging the Liberals intend to use in the campaign to try to persuade voters to give them a fifth straight term.