COLUMN: 60-year-old perk may impact election

The homeowner grant was first introduced by premier W.A.C. Bennnett in 1957.

It is a rare occasion when the homeowner grant becomes a hot political issue, but it was shaping up to do so in the run-up to the May 9 provincial election.

The reason is that many Metro Vancouver homeowners, including a number in Surrey and an even higher percentage in White Rock, could have lost their grant due to soaring assessments.

On Tuesday morning, the provincial government made that possibility less likely.

Some background on the homeowner grant is helpful in understanding its significant political potency. First introduced by longtime premier W.A.C. Bennett in 1957, the grant was touted as a Social Credit dividend. In fact, Bennett had little to no interest in Social Credit economic theory, but realized that reducing property taxes by using a small portion of a provincial surplus to pay a portion of the taxes to municipalities made for great politics.

It did (and still does).

The initial grant was $28; in the 1950s, that was a significant portion of the overall property-tax burden. It was initially meant to pay the taxes on $1,000 of the assessed value of the property, which at that time for many would have been 10 per cent or more of their home’s value.

At that time, school taxes were often the biggest part of homeowners’ tax bills, and the grant simply meant the province was paying a higher percentage of education costs, which were its constitutional responsibility.

The grant has continued, frequently raised as inflation has boosted the total tax bill and reduced the buying power of a dollar.

In the 1990s, the NDP government considered cutting it off for homeowners it defined as wealthy, but quickly reversed course after a storm of protest.

Up to the present, the vast majority of homeowners have received the grant, currently $570. Last year, 91 per cent of B.C. homeowners received it.

Seniors, people with disabilities and veterans receive an additional $275, and since 2010, an extra $200 has gone to homeowners outside the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria. This boost was initially sold as assistance for people living in hard-hit resource-producing areas, but is now considered to be a return of some carbon tax to those with fewer transportation options, as part of the BC Liberals’ “revenue-neutral” approach to taxing emissions.

This is ironic in some ways, considering that gas prices in Metro Vancouver are the highest in the country – thanks to both the carbon tax and TransLink’s 17-cent-per-litre transit tax.

This extra $200 grant is particularly interesting in the context of the 2017 assessments. The highest boosts in property values in B.C. have almost all occurred in the areas where homeowners do not get the extra $200 – Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and the Capital Regional District.

So it was entirely possible that more homeowners in those areas wouldn’t receive any grant at all, while in areas where home prices have risen more modestly, almost every homeowner will get a $770 grant. In the Lower Mainland and Victoria, the $570 grant will only go to homeowners whose assessments are below the threshold.

This being an election year, the pressure was on the provincial government to boost that threshold significantly, and on Tuesday it did so, bumping it by $400,000 to $1.6 million.

With no change to the threshold, the homeowner grant would have been an election issue – and it could have made the difference in the BC Liberals winning or losing, given how many seats are at play in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Victoria.

Bennett would be proud. A 60-year-old political goodie still has the potential to play a significant role in shaping voter intentions.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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