Charest defends tax-cut promise

ST. HENRI DE LEVIS, Que. - Premier Jean Charest said Wednesday he doesn't have to ask Ottawa for permission to cut Quebecers' taxes.

Charest, campaigning in a tight election race, announced he would pass on $700 million - coming Quebec's way in the form of new equalization payments - as a tax cut to middle-class Quebecers.

"I am the premier of Quebec," he told reporters who questioned whether the equalization money was available for him to cut taxes.

"I would never in my lifetime go to Ottawa to try to justify to them, ask them permission, to do what I have to do in my areas of jurisdiction," he said.

"We live in a federation. I'm responsible for my areas of jurisdiction," he added. "And I'm accountable for that to the people of Quebec who will be choosing their next government on March 26. I am not accountable to the government in Ottawa in my area of jurisdiction."

Equalization is a federal program to transfer money from Ottawa to the provinces, "to ensure provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide comparable levels of public services." Asked what he would tell Canadians who woke up to learn their tax dollars were going to fund tax cuts for Quebecers, Charest said he would tell them Quebec is better run now under his government.

"We have cleaned up our public finances, our credit rating has gone up, the health-care system is in better shape, our education system is in better shape and there's a government in Quebec that has a strong team that's making the right choices so that the economy and the middle class can benefit from the decisions we're making," he replied.

Charest denied the tax cut - which is not a cabinet decision but a commitment by his Liberal party - is an attempt to buy votes.

"It's an announcement during the election campaign by the party and we will implement it as the government," he said.

Charest said his government has achieved 65 per cent of its goal to lower Quebec's tax level down to the Canadian average.

The extra equalization money gives that effort a boost.

"We said if we had room to manoeuvre, we would go faster," he explained.

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