Gov't opts for mail-in ballots for June HST referendum
British Columbians will decide the fate of the harmonized sales tax in June via cost-saving mail-in ballots, the government announced Friday.
Attorney General Barry Penner issued a statement saying they are working towards a referendum date of June 24, three months earlier than originally scheduled.
Penner said the referendum will be a simple-majority decision, meaning it requires 50-per cent plus one to pass.
He said the referendum question crafted last fall by the acting chief electoral officer remains the same: "Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and reinstating the PST (Provincial Sales Tax) in conjunction with the GST (Goods and Services Tax)? Yes/No."
The original referendum date was scheduled for Sept. 24, but premier Christy Clark said during her Liberal leadership run that she would move up the vote date.
The referendum was prompted by a petition drive last spring led by former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm that saw more than 500,000 voters sign on to have the government repeal the 12-per cent combined tax.
Penner said using mail-in ballots is expected to save $18 million and address potential voter fatigue, an acknowledgment that the vote will take place about a month after a federal election and possibly a provincial byelection.
"We listened to British Columbians, including opponents of the HST, who had concerns about the September initiative vote date and we are working to move up the process to June," Penner said in an emailed statement.
He did not immediately return calls for comment, but said in the statement that the outcome of the vote will be binding on the government.
"In choosing a mail-in vote, we thought carefully about voter turnout and the significant cost savings in having a mail-in ballot. We determined the mail-in was the best option."
The HST, which combines the five-per cent federal Goods and Services Tax with the former seven-per cent provincial sales tax, prompted political upheaval and public anger in B.C.
British Columbians remain angry about the government's introduction of the tax, which came less than three months after the May 2009 election. Many believe the government kept the tax under wraps until after winning the election.
Ottawa gave B.C. $1.6 billion to convert to the HST, money that must be repaid if voters dump the tax.
The HST became law on July 1, 2010, with the government heralding it as a tax that creates employment and spurs investment. Opponents of the HST called it a $2-billion tax shift from business to consumers.
Vander Zalm organized a petition drive under British Columbia's unique direct democracy laws that challenged the HST and gained enough valid signatures to force the referendum.
But the political fallout from the HST didn't stop with Vander Zalm's petition.
Former premier Gordon Campbell announced last November he was leaving office 18 months into his third term, acknowledging the public anger over his government's unveiling of the levy.
Vander Zalm said he supports the June date and the mail-in ballot, but is concerned about big business going on a spending spree to convince voters to support the tax.
"I'm impressed with what the premier has done," he said. "She's keeping her promise for an earlier vote. The mail-in ballot is fine with me as long as the majority of the people have an opportunity to participate. That's great."
He lauded Clark for moving up the vote, and said it appears the government is keeping a promise to fund both sides equally in the referendum.
"Obviously we need to worry a little about the big business lobby," Vander Zalm said. "There needs to be a limitation on them as well."
Business groups have already said they plan to take a more active role in supporting the HST this time than they did when it was first announced, and Vander Zalm's petition drive served as a lightning rod for public anger.