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On Monday, Doug Ford became the latest provincial premier to look at the challenge of high oil prices – and see an opportunity to shower voters with money.

The Ford government’s promise to cut the province’s gas tax by 5.7 cents as of July 1 (the provincial election is June 2 – hint, hint) is hardly a first. For Ontario, it is better described as a fourth. By our count, this marks the fourth time the Ford government has used borrowed money to encourage people to use more energy, whether gasoline or electricity.

Several other provinces have done likewise in recent weeks – responding to higher pump prices by giving money to drivers.

Saskatchewan will issue a rebate of $100 for each vehicle registered to a provincial resident. British Columbia plans a refund of public insurance fees worth $110 for individuals and $165 for commercial drivers. Alberta is temporarily suspending its 13 cents-a-litre gasoline-excise tax.

The problem with these policies? For starters, you have to own a car to get the benefit. In Alberta and Ontario, the more gasoline you use, the bigger your tax break. In Saskatchewan, the more vehicles you own, the bigger your break.

Yes, the recent spike in gas prices has been tough on many Canadians. But prices are signals, and the economy works best when people pick up on them. The message oil prices are sending is: You can save money by driving less, or driving more efficiently, or not driving at all.

Consider someone who owns an SUV that gulps 10 litres per 100 kilometres, and which they drive 25,000 kilometres a year. If they chose a car instead of a truck, they could travel the same distance on far less gas. Ditto if they were using a hybrid or electric vehicle.

Another way to address the high cost of gas, rather than subsidizing drivers, would be to encourage non-drivers. Making public transit better, cheaper and more frequent would cut Canada’s energy bill by reducing energy use rather than subsidizing energy bills.

Or governments could follow the lead of New Brunswick. Instead of lowering gas taxes, it is raising them, but rebating the higher carbon tax back to taxpayers – all taxpayers.

The province is giving money back through the income-tax system by raising the amount of personal income exempt from provincial tax by $903, to $11,729, and by increasing the low-income tax threshold – the level below which is tax-free – to $19,177 from $18,268. Most of the province’s people will get some relief.

New Brunswick is using its carbon tax to give everyone – heavy drivers, light drivers and those who don’t drive at all – a small tax break. You don’t get twice the tax break by owning two cars and using twice as much gas. The way to maximize the benefit is to drive less, or drive more efficiently.

The cost to New Brunswick’s treasury will be $40-million. Adjusted for population, it’s equivalent to a broad Ontario tax break worth three-quarters of a billion dollars. But Ontario is taking a different approach. It’s offering rebates and tax breaks to encourage driving more, and using more energy.

Prior to Monday’s promise of a lower gas tax, Ontario previously announced that renewing a vehicle licence plate would now be free – down from, for most people, $120 a year. And anyone who renewed over the last two years will get a refund. Cost to taxpayers: $1.1-billion annually.

Earlier this year, the province also announced that Highways 412 and 418, which were tolled as a part of a plan to begin introducing driver-pay, will henceforth be free – like the rest of the province’s taxpayer-subsidized highways.

But the topper is Ontario’s electricity subsidies, which drastically lower the price of power. The more electricity a household uses, the more they save. And the more electricity they use, the more taxpayers pay.

It’s bad policy on steroids, but it’s politically popular – the previous Liberal government introduced the scheme and the Ford government amped it up. According to the province’s Financial Accountability Office, the Ontario Electricity Rebate and other subsidies cost taxpayers $6.9-billion in 2021-22. That’s almost as much as Ontario spent on postsecondary education. Over 20 years, the FAO says the province will spend a stratospheric $118-billion subsidizing electricity.

If voters punished such bad decisions, they would stop. Instead, voters have a history of rewarding their authors. So the show goes on.

Editor’s note: A headline on an editorial about rebates and tax breaks for drivers described taxpayer money subsidizing drivers in four provinces; in fact, in two provinces the funds are not directly from government revenues, but rather from public auto insurers.

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