There was no joy in Montreal on Thursday as the city struck out in its bid to host Amazon's second North American headquarters. What hurt the most perhaps was that Toronto, the city Montrealers most loathe and envy, was the only Canadian one to make Amazon's cut.
Montréal International, the organization that piloted the city's bid to attract Amazon's HQ2, touted the region's emergence as an artificial-intelligence hub, its affordable housing prices and lower wages than in other major urban centres.
What Montréal International could not put lipstick on, however, were the highest personal income taxes in North America and the third-highest among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
At 13.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 2016, personal incomes taxes accounted for a greater share of the economy in Quebec than in any OECD countries except Denmark and Iceland, according to a new review of Quebec taxes by a team led by the University of Sherbrooke's Luc Godbout. The Canadian average, excluding Quebec, was 11.3 per cent.
When the overall tax take is measured, Canadians outside Quebec face among the lowest tax burdens in the developed world, while Quebeckers are taxed at levels comparable to those in Norway and Greece. Personal, corporate and property taxes, along with mandatory public pension contributions, accounted for 38.5 per cent of Quebec's GDP in 2016. The comparable figure in the rest of Canada was 30.4 per cent. In the United States, it was 26 per cent.
Higher tax rates in Quebec are not the only reason for the gap. Despite a stronger run of late, Quebec's economy has grown more slowly in recent decades than the rest of North America. Hence, Quebec's taxes-to-GDP ratio has barely budged while it has mostly fallen elsewhere.
Quebec's tax burden peaked at 40 per cent of GDP in 2000, bottomed out at 36.3 per cent in 2008, but rose again after that to surpass 38 per cent in Prof. Godbout's latest report.
Premier Philippe Couillard's government recently announced it is cutting the tax rate on personal income under $43,000 to 15 per cent from 16 per cent. But it's not clear that will make much of a dent in the overall tax take. One reason is that Montreal's new mayor, Valérie Plante, just unveiled a budget that includes a 3.3-per-cent increase in property taxes in 2018.
Montreal's residential property taxes are already the highest among Canada's biggest cites, at $9.88 for every $1,000 of assessed value in 2017. The rates in Toronto and Vancouver were $6.62 and $2.55, respectively, according to a study by Toronto-based consultants Altus Group.
While average house prices remain much higher in Toronto and Vancouver, a middle-class homeowner in greater Montreal still faces a property tax bill that is between 50 per cent and 200 per cent higher than on a comparably-priced home in the Greater Toronto Area or in B.C.'s Lower Mainland. Montreal's commercial property taxes are also the highest in Canada.
Montreal's Amazon bid was also hampered by the highest marginal effective tax rate (METR) on capital investment in the country. At 79.3 per cent in 2017, the METR on capital investment in Montreal surpassed Toronto's 50.8 per cent and Vancouver's 48 per cent, according to a C.D. Howe Institute report released last month.
So, what exactly do governments in Quebec do with all those taxes? Ottawa pocketed about 31 per cent of all the taxes collected in Quebec in 2016, while the provincial government, municipalities and the Quebec Pension Plan sucked up the rest. Apart from financing more generous subsidies for daycare and prescription drugs, a good portion of those taxes went toward financing the most expansive corporate welfare state in Canada.
According to a Montreal Economic Institute study released on Thursday, Quebec accounted for nearly 29 per cent of all business subsidies granted by provincial governments in 2016, a much larger proportion than the province's 19 per cent share of the Canadian economy.
What goes around comes around. In slapping a 292-per-cent countervailing duty on Bombardier's C Series jet, the U.S. Commerce Department attributed the largest chunk of the duty to the $1 billion (U.S.) the Quebec government injected into the struggling aircraft program in 2015. The Commerce Department said the program was not "equity-worthy," rendering the government's investment "inconsistent with the usual investment practice of private investors."
Amazon wasn't looking for corporate welfare when it whittled down the 238 bids it received for HQ2 to 20 serious contenders. If it was, Montreal might have a been a shoo-in.