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Ted Morton's astonishing sales tax admission: not just his secret wish

Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton

Did you ever say something you regretted the instant it flew out of your mouth?

Could that be the explanation for Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton's astonishing admission last week that, sure, he'd think about imposing a sales tax on Albertans if he had to.

Responding to a reporter's question about a sales tax at a news conference on Alberta's quarterly fiscal update, Morton said: "I'm thinking that in the medium to long term, looking at all the options is a good idea." That meant, he continued in an explaining sort of way, he was "looking at all the options we have for smoothing out revenue volatility."

As if the promise of less volatility was going to settle down Albertans after a blooper of that magnitude. Indeed, the look on Morton's face as he spoke was evocative of a man who realized he'd stepped in something unpleasant and wondered if he could wipe it off his shoe without being noticed.

OK, on its own, Morton's statement was hardly a ringing endorsement of the tax Albertans love most to hate. But it sure didn't slam the door on the idea, either, especially when the minister responded to a follow-up question about his own views by saying with a smirk, "I'll pass on that."

Say what? You’re not prepared to say it won't happen, no way, no how! Now that's political ambiguity, and that's why we can hardy blame the media for jumping all over his comment.

If Morton wasn't prepared to completely rule out the idea of a sales tax -- the one policy there is an almost universal popular consensus against among Albertans -- someone was. A cranky Premier Ed Stelmach put it about as emphatically as he could: "I can tell you as long as I'm premier, there won’t be a sales tax. Period."

You have to believe the premier on this. After all, he's the guy who wouldn't even tolerate a modest incremental increase in the sin tax on booze.

The trouble is, Stelmach may not be premier forever. Indeed, lately there's plenty of talk about how he might be on the way out, either pushed by fellow Conservatives worried about the challenge from the Wildrose Alliance, or led by his wife Marie, who's said to be sick and tired of politics. Contenders for the job are discreetly lining up financing and support.

If Stelmach's not the premier, count on it that one of the leading candidates to replace him will be … Ted Morton.

The fact is, Morton’s right, Alberta does have a revenue volatility problem that a more sensible tax policy could smooth out, although a regressive tax like a sales tax that whacks working people and families isn't the right way to go.

What Alberta really needs is a return to a fair and sensible progressive personal income tax like we had before Ralph Klein imposed his so-called flat tax, which costs Alberta about $5.5 billion a year and favours the rich at the expense of everyone else.

That's right, thanks to the low-tax "Alberta Advantage," middle-income taxpayers here pay more than they would in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, the Yukon and Nunavut. The folks at the bottom pay the third highest provincial income taxes in Canada.

Alberta business taxes follow the same pattern -- low for large corporations, in the middle for small business.

Alas, neither raising taxes on the richest corporations nor fairly taxing the wealthy are likely to appeal to a U.S.-style market fundamentalist like Morton, who not that long ago was rumoured to be pondering crossing the floor to the Wildrose benches.

Which is why the idea of a sales tax appeals to so many politicians -- not just Morton.

No matter what they say, bet on it that most Alberta politicians would be delighted to see a money machine like a sales tax in place -- as long as someone else would take the blame for putting it there.

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga's column in Friday’s edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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