Audits don’t happen randomly

Commissioner and chief executive of the Canadian Revenue Agency reminds us in a story in the Financial Post that there are no random audits in Canada.

If your tax return is selected for audit, the CRA has identified some aspect of your return, be it a deduction claimed or an industry that it is focusing on, for additional scrutiny.

This should be reassuring to the majority of filers, since most people earning a wage have limited deductions available to them, compared to corporations. But should there be some percentage of tax audits selected at random from the entire population?

Cigarettes and the complexity of the tax code

Sometimes people wonder why the legislation surrounding various taxes is so complex, given the relatively straight-forward nature of those taxes. The Tax Foundation provides a telling example in a recent post about the definition of a cigarette:

Cigarettes are taxed in New Mexico, as everywhere else, and at a pretty hefty rate. As the tax goes higher and higher, there’s more of an incentive to get out of it, and one way is to alter cigarettes so they no longer fall under the state’s tax code definition. When the state catches on, it adds more to the definition to encompass the new products, and the cycle then repeats itself.

So now, New Mexico’s definition of cigarette is either a roll of tobacco wrapped in paper, or a roll of tobacco wrapped in a substance containing tobacco, weighing no more than 3 pounds per 1,000 stocks, and having three or more of the following characteristics:

  1. it has a typical cigarette size and shape;
  2. it has a cellulose acetate or other cigarette-type integrated filter;
  3. it has a filler primarily consisting of flue-cured, burley, oriental, or unfermented tobaccos or has a filler material yielding the smoking characteristics of any of those tobaccos;
  4. it has a filler, binder and wrapper that together contain three percent or more by weight of total reducing sugars and four percent or less by weight of non-reducing sugars;
  5. it is sold in soft packs, hard packs, flip-top boxes, clam shells, or other cigarette-type packages;
  6. it is sold in a package that labels the product as a cigarette or a cigarette substitute, or in a package that does not clearly and conspicuously declare that the product is a cigar;
  7. it is available for sale in packages of five, ten, twenty or twenty-five sticks;
  8. it is available for sale in cartons of ten packages;
  9. it is marketed or advertised to consumers as a cigarette or cigarette substitute.

There are entire sections of the Canadian Income Tax Act devoted to definitions like this. Usually there is a Definitions subsection where certain terms specifically related to a given section are defined.

Is it ethical for corporations or individuals to try to produce what is essentially a cigarette that is outside the letter of the law but clearly violates the spirit? Clearly no. Unfortunately I think principles-based tax law is a non-starter, but I’m a big believer in principles-based GAAP as the tool we professionals need to use to accurately reflect economic reality.

(By the way, the ‘P’ in GAAP stands for principles. How can we have principles which are not principles-based, you might wonder. Well, that’s a question for the FASB, Canada’s AcSB, and the IASB!)

Ten principles of sound tax policy

The Tax Foundation’s Ten principles of sound tax policy are a must-read for those influencing tax policy. I think the list can be further refined down to about half that, but maybe they wanted to get an even ten.

For instance, maintaining the neutrality of the system (#2) will result in broad bases (#3). It’s when the system gets less neutral (i.e. favours certain groups or behaviours) that the base is narrowed. Various special interest deductions put in place to encourage desirable behaviour or punish undesirable behaviour have narrowed the base and caused rates to be kept high unnecessarily.

Harmonization of federal, state/province and local/municipal taxes (#10) is part and parcel with creating a simple tax system (#4). The provincial government has been criticized recently about its reluctance to harmonize Ontario’s sales tax with the Federal GST. The premier’s misguided reasoning for the reluctance? It would place a tax on certain exempt items, thus eliminating some of the complexity and non-neutrality in the tax.

Tax stability (#5) is important because it makes them predictable, which is also aided when there is no retroactivity (#6). When politicians can make changes to taxes retroactive, tax is not predictable. The Canadian government announced recently the retroactive increase in the Basic Personal tax credit. You’re unlikely to hear anyone complain about this, but nonetheless it isn’t ideal tax policy.

Transparency (#1) is important no matter what government initiative we’re talking about, and an open process (#9) is one manifestation of this requirement. All the workings of a democratic government must be open to its citizens and open to criticism and debate. Tax is no different from anything else in this respect.

So I humbly put forward my own principles of sound tax policy: simplicity, neutrality, transparency, and predictability. I think that basically covers it at a more abstract level than the Tax Foundation’s ten.

Canada gets a variety of tax cuts

Canadian coinsThe Canadian government released a mini-budget this past week that featured serious tax cuts. The GST goes down another point to 5% and the lowest bracket of personal tax is lowered back down to 15%. Corporate taxes continued their downward trajectory.

The CICA focused first on the reduction to corporate taxes:

“The government’s commitment to reduce the general corporate tax to a rate of 15% by 2012 is a positive step toward making Canadian companies more competitive,” said Kevin Dancey, FCA, President and CEO of the CICA.

Their media release about the announcement actually doesn’t even mention the GST or personal tax. That’s a little strange. I hope they’re just working on something really special and it’s taking longer than expected, because they would be remiss to miss out on commenting on these topics as well.

Clearly we as a profession should have something official to say about personal and consumption taxes. I know I do, as an individual member.

The Basic Personal tax credit amount was raised to $9,600 in 2007 and is scheduled to rise further to $10,100 in 2009. This is a positive step and smart policy, as a strong argument can be made to increase the limit to the poverty line. Any increase here is progressive and ought to be well received.

The cut to the GST from 6 to 5% as of January 1, 2008 is essentially regressive and rewards increased consumption. Shifting the savings here to the Basic Personal credit or lowering the general rate on income tax would have been better and greener.

Canada is riding high on a wave of prosperity, the loonie has reached levels not seen since before the 20th century, and unemployment is reaching all-time lows. It is only fitting that the Federal government return some of its surplus to Canadians.

How to read the Income Tax Act

Continuing the new post series where I answer readers’ questions they’ve Googled to find my site, as logged by 103bees.com, the next one is sent chills down my spine: “How to read the Income Tax Act?”

The last time I cracked open the Act, it was probably tax class in university. Once you’re done those classes, there’s really no need to delve into the swirling mass of dense legalese again. There are many more comprehensible sources for tax information, so don’t read the Income Tax Act. In its place, do these things:

  • Read the Canadian Revenue Agency’s website. They write about tax in plain English (most of the time) and it’s reliable information since it is from the source.
  • Read accounting firm websites. All the major firms have sections on their websites that offer regular tax facts and updates, detailing bits of tax law applicable to your situation, whatever it may be. Again, plain English (for the most part, although we do tend to introduce jargon from time to time).
  • Read tax textbooks. I still do this when I want a refresher. Textbooks are occasionally dense, but usually still much easier to read and understand than the Act.
  • Call in to tax related TV call-in shows. These seem to be on regularly, on CityTV especially and other fringe channels that predominantly have call-in shows. They feature knowledgeable experts sharing advice for free.
  • Use tax software. If you own one of the tax packages people use to do their own taxes, these can be used to answer your questions in a meaningful way: with your numbers, or with dummy data as examples.

Reading the Act is best left to the professionals who have specialized in tax. As you can see, there are many alternatives, most of which are available on the web, that the average person can use instead to find guidance on any particular issue.