The Canadian equalization system is based onthe Representative Tax System (RTS) approach. The RTS system calculates equalizationtransfers on the basis of a province’s ability to raise revenues from aset of tax bases that represent those actually used by the provinces. Itinvolves defining a common tax base for all tax sources used, a task that isfeasible when provinces’ tax bases do not differ fundamentally. Alternativeapproaches to equalization involve so-called MacroFormulas, such as one based on some aggregate measureof provincial economic activity (Provincial GDP, sales, etc.). The RTSsystem suits Canada well, given that provinces use a large number of differenttax sources, but ones whose bases do not differ too much betweenprovinces. Moreover, the pattern of revenue sources across provincesdiffers considerably. The RTS approach is a way of aggregating thesedifferences into a single measure. An important feature of the RTSapproach is that it attempts to calculate provincial allocations in a way thataffects as little as possible the incentive for provinces to vary their taxpolicies in order to increase their entitlements. We return to this issuebelow.
The calculation of a province’s Equalization entitlement is asfollows. For each of over forty tax bases, a common tax base isdefined. The common base reflects the features of bases actually used bythe provinces. In many cases, this is a relatively simple task. Forexample, in the case of income taxes, most provinces use the same base; excisetaxes on cigarettes and alcohol tend to be the quantities of those productssold; payroll taxes use very similar bases. In other cases, provincialtax bases differ considerably, so the representative tax base is acompromise. This is the case for provincial sales taxes, property taxes,and many resource taxes. Once the representative tax bases are defined, anational average provincial tax is calculated by taking the ratio of totalprovincial tax revenues to the size of the representative tax base aggregatedover all provinces. Next, a per capita Equalization entitlement iscalculated for each tax base and for each province. This is done by firstcalculating the amount of per capita revenues a province would raise byapplying the national average tax rate to its own tax base. This iscompared with the amount that would be raised per capita by applying thenational average tax rate to the tax based aggregated over a representative setof provinces. The difference is the per capita equalization entitlementfor that tax source: it may be positive or negative. The representativeset of provinces includes British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario,and Quebec. Thus, it is referred to as a Five-Province Standard.The remaining five provinces (Alberta and the four Atlantic Provinces) areexcluded from the representative set because of the specialcircumstances.51
This procedure is used for each of the overforty tax bases. Entitlements are summed over all tax sources for eachprovince. Those provinces that have a positive entitlement receive a percapita transfer equal to the full amount of the entitlement. Provinceswith a negative entitlement — the so-called ‘have’provinces — receivenothing (nor do they contribute anything directly). There are currentlythree have provinces —Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. There has been remarkably littlevariation in the set of have provinces in the post-war period. Thissystem is referred to as a gross system, as opposed to a net system in whichtransfers to the have-not provinces are fully financed by payments from thehave provinces.52 Nonetheless, the haveprovinces implicitly contribute to equalization since their residents pay arelatively high share of the federal revenues used to finance theprogram.
There are some other detailed features ofthe program that might briefly be mentioned. The growth of Equalizationpayments is subject to a ceiling (currently $10 billion) that escalates at thegrowth rate of national GNP. The ceiling has been binding from time totime. There is also a floor that shelters provinces from suddenreductions in entitlements. As well, for some revenue sources, individualprovinces constitute a substantial proportion of the national base. Inthese circumstances, the province will have a significant effect on thenational average tax rate, and this would province the province with anincentive to vary its tax rate to affect its entitlement. In thesecircumstances, only a portion of the province’s tax base is subject toEqualization.
The Equalization program is under continualscrutiny, and has been subject to a variety of changes in the past. Thenumber of tax bases used has gradually expanded over the post-war period.(Initially, only income taxes were included.) The treatment of resourcerevenues, particularly oil and gas, has varied from time to time. Forexample, in the 1970s and early 1980s, only half of provincial oil and gasrevenues were included. Part of the reason for this was that equalizingprovincial oil and gas revenues was expensive for the federal government, whichhad no direct access to those tax bases for its own use. As well, oil andgas was considered to be ‘property’of the provinces. Finally, the standard used for Equalization has changedover time. The five-province standard replaced a full national averagestandard in which all ten provinces were included. This was also partlydriven by the problems arising out of the very unequal distribution of oil andgas revenues. By excluding Alberta from the base, full equalization ofthese revenues was effectively ruled out.
There remain a number of issues over thedesign of the current system. Some of the more important ones are asfollows.
Needs Equalization. As we have mentioned, only differences in tax capacity areequalized, and not equalization of needs. The purpose of equalization isto enable provinces to provide comparable levels of public services atcomparable tax rates. In principle, this requires that differences in theneed for public services, such as those that arise from demographicdifferences, to be equalized. Although this poses certain measurementproblems, many countries with multi-level government systems do equalize forneeds. Examples include Australia, Japan, South Africa andSweden.
Incentive Effects.Ideally, Equalization transfers should be based on a province’s tax capacity independent of itsactual tax policies. In practice, this is very difficult toguarantee. Equalization is based on the size of a province’s tax bases relative to thenational average. To the extent that provincial policies affect its tax bases,they might have an incentive to design policies that will attract moreEqualization transfers. This could be important in the case of resources,where provinces may have an influence on the rate at which resources aredeveloped.
Treatment of Resources. In addition to the potential incentive problems arisingfrom a province’sability to influence its resource tax base, resources give rise to otherproblems. Some resources are distributed very unevenly across provinces,and give rise to large Equalization payments. Since the federalgovernment does not have direct access to resource taxation, it finds the costsof equalizing resource revenues to be onerous.53 As well, themeasurement of potential resource tax bases can be difficult. Ideally,the capacity to tax resources depends on the rents that the resourcesgenerate. But, the bases actually used tend often to be some measure ofproduction. This is a very imperfect measure of the capacity to taxresources, since it neglects the fact that some resources are produced at amuch higher cost than others.
Problems with Particular Taxes. Some taxes give rise to special problems. Propertytaxes are particularly problematic since the bases are defined and measuredvery differently in different provinces. A relatively recent major sourceof revenues for the provinces is lottery revenues. It is difficult todetermine what the potential tax base is for this revenue source. User feesalso give rise to conceptual problems. These can be viewed as benefittaxes to a large extent. Given that, they are not a source of financinggeneral public services, and the case for equalizing them is notstrong.
Macro Approaches. Some observers have suggested that some of the problems ofthe existing Equalization system can be avoided by adopting a macro approach toEqualization. This would avoid most of the incentive problems. Itwould reduce the complexity of the current system. And, it would avoidthe difficulties that arise in defining standard tax bases when provinces areadopting increasingly diverse tax systems. On the other hand, macroapproaches would simply not provide Equalization in accordance with actualprovincial tax capacities, only with a rather broad and inaccurateproxy.
The Five-Province Standard. Finally, the five-province standard can lead to levels ofEqualization that do not suffice to ensure that provinces are able to providecomparable levels of public services at comparable tax rates. The mainreason for this is that, since the main oil and gas-producing province(Alberta) is excluded from the base, that source of revenues is far from fullyequalized. Indeed, the adoption of the five-province standard wasmotivated largely by the desire to avoid the cost to the federal government ofequalizing oil and gas revenues.
3. Nature Of Other IntergovernmentalTransfers
Equalization and the EPF now comprise thebulk of the transfers from the federal government to the provinces.Historically, considerable reliance had been placed on shared-cost conditionaltransfers, often using 50 percent sharing formulas. These were used tosupport major shared cost programs in health, welfare and post-secondaryeducation. As mentioned above, shared-cost programs were abandoned forhealth and post-secondary education in 1977 and for welfare in 1996. Whatremains are much more specific and smaller shared-cost programs in areas likehighway transportation, immigration and infrastructure.
The traditional economic argument forshared-cost or matching transfers is that some types of provincial expendituresyield spillover benefits to residents of other provinces. This rationalehas been largely abandoned. It has been realized that the appropriaterate of matching from this perspective is difficult to know, and is likely tobe much less than the full matching rates that have been used. In thecase of the major matching transfers for health, welfare and education, thetransfers served mainly as a inducement to the provinces to establish suchprograms. This was based less on spillover grounds than on arguments forharmonized social policy for all Canadians. Once the programs wereestablished, the need for matching incentives became less compelling. On the contrary, the matchingaspect was viewed as providing an adverse incentive to the provinces toincrease their expenditures.
The use of shared-cost conditional grantshas been controversial with the provinces. The major grants have been insupport of expenditures in the legislative jurisdiction of the provinces.Although this use of the spending power has in the main been deemed to beconstitutional, the strenuous objections of the provinces has led to thefederal government agreeing not to institute them without consulting with theprovinces. The recent Social Union Framework Agreement formalized thisconsultation. Under the agreement, the federal government has undertakennot to introduce new joint federal-provincial programs, whether shared-cost orbloc-funded, unless at least half the provinces agree. It is worth repeatingthat this is only a political agreement and therefore it is not legallybinding.
As well as federal transfers to theprovinces, there are also transfers between the federal government and thethree northern territories, between the federal government and aboriginal communities,and between the provinces and their municipalities. The structure offederal-territorial transfers is similar to those of the provinces. The bulk of theirtransfers are one for Equalization and a bloc grant for social programs.They obtain a larger grant per capita than the provinces, reflecting the factthat costs are much higher: populations are sparse, and transportation costsare high.
Federal transfers to aboriginalcommunities reflect the special fiduciary responsibility that the federalgovernment has for First Nations with whom treaties have been signed.These transfers have traditionally been tied to the provision of particularservices. They differ in a significant way from most otherintergovernmentaltransfers. Receiving communities are accountable to the federalgovernment for how they are spent. This reflects the fact that thesecommunities have had little legislative responsibility. Fiscal relationswith aboriginal communities are gradually changing as self-government initiatives occur. Theseaim to give these communities more responsibility for delivering their own services,in which case the transfers would be much less conditional.
The relations between provinces and localgovernments in Canadian tend to be hierarchical in nature. Under theconstitution, municipal governments are the creature of and responsible to theprovinces, so most of their fiscal dealings are with the relevant provincialgovernment. The result is that while the federal government transfersfunds to the provinces, the latter transfer funds to municipalities, and insome cases, to special purpose bodies like school boards. The magnitudeof provincial-municipaltransfers is roughly the same as federal-provincial transfers.Provincial-municipaltransfers differ considerably across provinces, but they bear some similaritiesto federal-provincial transfers. They often tend to have an equalizingcomponent, though not one that is as highly developed as the federalEqualization program. They tend to have significant per capitacomponents, which is implicitly equalizing. The transfers are typicallymore conditional than federal-provincial transfers and the municipalities aremore directly accountable to the provinces, reflecting the fact that municipalitiesdo not enjoy the same independence of legislative responsibility as theprovinces.54 It also reflects the nature of services delivered by municipalities. Theyassume some delivery responsibility for important provincial public services inthe areas of education, health and welfare, with the provinces overseeing thedesign and standards. They also provide public sector infrastructure,such as roads, water supplies and sewage. Provinces exercise control overthe capital funding required to build and maintain such infrastructure.
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