BC government passes law enabling harmonized sales tax after closing debate

VICTORIA, B.C. - The harmonized sales tax became law Thursday in British Columbia but the fight over the controversial tax appears far from over.

VICTORIA, B.C. - The harmonized sales tax became law Thursday in British Columbia but the fight over the controversial tax appears far from over.

A grassroots petition campaign to repeal the HST led by former premier Bill Vander Zalm continues to gather support, and the Opposition New Democrats say they'll continue to push the government to dump the tax before it's officially implemented on July 1.

The Liberals are also in an HST side fight of sorts, challenging the independent Elections BC, which ruled the government offside for planning to send out a brochure promoting the tax.

The Liberals used closure to end debate in the legislature, voting 46-36 to implement the tax on schedule. Premier Gordon Campbell was not in the legislature for the vote.

The law eliminates the provincial sales tax to allow the levying of the HST, a blended 12-per-cent federal and provincial tax.

British Columbia joins Ontario and the three Maritime provinces with an HST.

"The fight will continue," said NDP Leader Carole James. "The fight doesn't stop today with the vote on the HST. Let's remember there's still two months until it actually takes effect on July 1."

The government said the tax will help the economy by encouraging investment but critics say it shifts more of the tax burden onto individuals because many goods and services previously exempt from provincial sales tax now are subject to the HST.

Vander Zalm is spearheading a petition drive to force a non-binding referendum to repeal the tax under the province's recall and initiative legislation.

Elections BC said this week the government is not allowed to use a taxpayer-funded mailout on the provincial budget to promote its position on the HST.

A clearly disappointed Finance Minister Colin Hansen said he will pull the government's brochure until after Vander Zalm's petition drive ends in July.

But Hansen said he's written a letter of complaint to B.C.'s chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld suggesting Vander Zalm and the Opposition New Democrats should be subject to similar scrutiny when it comes to spreading false and misleading information about the tax.

"Elections BC essentially advised us we don't have the right to explain through advertising why the government believes Bill 9 is in the public interest during this period," said Hansen at a news conference.

"This is especially surprising and disappointing."

Elections BC wrote the government Wednesday, saying the mailout does not meet the rules of the Recall and Initiative Act when it comes to government advertising surrounding promoting or opposing bills or petitions.

"In order to ensure compliance with the Recall and Initiative Act, it is imperative that government advertising does not indirectly promote or oppose an initiative petition or the associated draft bill in any way unless government first registers as an initiative advertising sponsor and complies with the $5,000 advertising limit," said the letter to the Ministry of Attorney General from deputy chief electoral officer Linda Johnson.

Hansen said the government was trying to inform British Columbians about the HST.

Vander Zalm said Thursday the government had lots of time to mail out information.

"Instead they waited until they saw the initiative was making great progress and then they wanted to take a million of our dollars to tell the people that they should not sign the petition," he said.

"I'm glad with Elections BC and their ruling."

Hansen's letter to Elections BC points to alleged violations of the Recall and Initiative Act by the Vander Zalm petition and provincial New Democrats "with respect to provisions that specifically prohibit proliferating false and misleading information."

The letter asks Elections BC to question Vander Zalm's petition, which already has more than 145,000 signatures.

"We will fully expect Elections BC to apply the law equally to everyone involved in the HST debate, including the NDP and Bill Vander Zalm and his canvassers," Hansen told reporters.

He said the Liberals were not setting the groundwork to contest the validity of the petition.

"That's a job Elections BC needs to do," said Hansen.

Elections B.C. officials could not be reached for comment.

Vander Zalm's petition to repeal the HST requires the signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters from every one of the province's 85 ridings.

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