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Ontario keeps steady hand on the corporate tax tiller

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On the corporate-taxation front, Thursday's Ontario budget offers little change. For businesses in the province, that is cause for both sighs of relief and cries of frustration.

As promised, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa left corporate tax rates unchanged – following through on a pledge made in last year's budget to suspend previously planned corporate tax cuts until the province gets its budget in balance. (According to plan, that's still four years away; the deficit for fiscal 2013-14 is budgeted at $11.7-billion, far and away the biggest provincial shortfall in the country.)

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On the one hand, he resisted the temptation (as well as the quiet wishes of the opposition New Democratic Party and even some members of his own party) to raise corporate taxes. On the other hand, he offered no overall tax relief to businesses saddled with rates that in many cases are uncompetitive with other provinces. And for those (including the Drummond report on government finances as well as Mr. Sousa's own government) who have come to the conclusion that the province's myriad business tax credits are in need of a serious pruning, the government has put that off for another day.

Yes, the budget does extend for two more years, to the end of 2015, the accelerated Capital Cost Allowance program, under which businesses can deduct the cost of new machinery and equipment more rapidly. This move, which matches one announced in the federal budget, will reduce Ontario's corporate tax bill by $265-million over three years, but only $15-million in fiscal 2013-14.

Yes, the budget throws a bone to small-business owners (which by the government's own reckoning account for nearly 90 per cent of all employers in the province), by raising the payroll level under which companies are exempt from paying the Employer Health Tax. But in exchange for what would save these small employers less than $1,000 a year, it will remove the exemption on the first $400,000 of payroll on larger employers – making the changes a wash. And for small businesses, whose provincial tax rate of 4.5 per cent is the highest in the country, this does very little.

Yes, the budget reduces the scope of the Apprenticeship Training Tax Credit, which will save the province $110-million over the next three years, but the change doesn't take effect until the end of the fiscal year. Despite Mr. Sousa's affirmation in his budget speech that "the cost of Ontario's business tax credits is growing at a level that cannot be sustained," no other business tax credits were touched in this budget.

The same goes for Ontario's Mining Tax Act. Despite citing in the budget a PricewaterhouseCoopers study that says Ontario has the lowest taxes on resource extraction of any province in Canada, the government would only say that it is going to "review" how to get "fair compensation" for its natural resources.

This is, certainly, a prudent budget from a minority government trying to maintain a delicate balance that would be enough to satisfy the Opposition and cling to power. But in walking that cautious line, it leaves beleaguered businesses not only with no relief, but waiting another year for the bigger shoes to fall.

David Parkinson is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow him on Twitter at @parkinsonglobe.

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