The B.C. government says 27,000 people stayed on the phone for the first of Finance Minister Kevin Falcon's harmonized sales tax "town halls" in Surrey Wednesday night.
Another 5,900 people in the Peace River region responded to the recorded invitation to hear local MLA Blair Lekstrom defend the HST, and explain why he returned to the B.C. Liberal cabinet after quitting last year in the face of a taxpayer revolt.
The regional telephone conference calls are to continue in the next week, calling listed home phones in each region for an hour-long question and answer session on the tax, and what happens if voters reject it in a mail-in ballot in June.
Lekstrom was asked about the impact of HST on farmers and oil and gas workers in northeastern B.C., and whether the government would abide by the results of the referendum. One caller referred to it as the "ripoff tax," and others said the region is losing even more business as people head for the Alberta border to shop for goods and services.
Lekstrom said the HST is no more of a burden in the north because it doesn't increase heating or fuel costs beyond existing carbon tax and other levies. And he promised the government would accept a simple majority vote to restore the old provincial sales tax without expanding its base.
"If this vote is to reject the HST and go back, we are going back to the way it was," he said.
Both Lekstrom and Falcon have left the door open to making the HST more palatable with further exemptions, or reducing the rate once the agreement with Ottawa allows it. But Lekstrom noted that reducing the provincial share of the HST from seven to six per cent would cost the treasury $800 million, and the budget is already in deficit.
The regional conference calls included two survey questions, where participants could choose between four options by pressing different numbers. One referred to the rising revenues projected from the HST, asking if they should be used to pay down debt, increase services or cut other taxes.
The other asked how the province should raise the money to undo the HST and repay the federal government.
One participant called for more telephone town halls on public issues. "It would make us feel a little bit less like peons at the bottom of a large government," she said.
Town hall meetings for the Kootenay region and in Richmond-South Delta-North Shore were to be held tonight, but have been rescheduled to avoid Vancouver Canucks playoff games.
A new schedule is expected today and will be posted here when it is available.