Next weeks federal budget expected to court support from older Canadians

Below is an article published by Winnipeg Free Press on April 17, 2015.  Click here to read the article.

OTTAWA – The Conservative government is expected to court the support of older Canadians in next week’s federal budget with a number of measures aimed at demonstrating that they’re making seniors a priority.

A number of long-sought changes are believed to be in play, including changes to the rules that require retirees to start withdrawing cash from their registered income funds by a certain age, The Canadian Press has learned.

Groups have been calling on Ottawa to tweak or eliminate the rigid rules around registered retirement income funds, or RRIFs, in part because Canadians now live much longer than they did when the program was instituted in 1992.

Under the law, people must draw down minimum amounts from their RRIFs annually by the age of 71. The minimum payments increase incrementally until they hit 20 per cent when the person reaches 94.

The goal of the rules is two-fold: deliver a dependable annual source of income to retirees and ensure the government starts recouping revenue on tax-deferred savings from RRSPs.

Today’s retirees, however, are hitting that age and realizing the rules limit their ability to manage their retirement nest egg, said Susan Eng, the vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a prominent seniors group that has been lobbying the government to eliminate the rules altogether.

The rules force people to withdraw money out of their tax-deferred savings plans — and pay taxes on it — when they might be better off continuing to invest those funds for later needs, Eng said.

Changing the rules would not cost the government, she added.

“The tax man is going to get those taxes eventually, it’s just that maybe not as fast as the tax man wants it,” Eng said.

Eng, who was expecting the government to at least tinker with RRIFs in the budget, said CARP would also welcome smaller tweaks to the rules if the government decides not to ditch them outright.

She said moving up the starting withdrawal age to 75 from 71 or reducing withdrawal rates would be a good step — as would a combination of both.

A June 2014 report by the C.D. Howe Institute think-tank reached similar conclusions on raising the withdrawal age and decreasing minimum payments.

Times have changed since Ottawa implemented the rules in 1992, a period when the federal government was “deficit-ridden and hungry for cash,” the report noted.

“Now it is close to surplus, and the timing of receipt of those taxes matters less to the government,” the paper said, referring to the government’s promise to balance the books — one it is widely expected to honour on Tuesday.

The report also noted that when the rules were first created, 71-year-old men were expected to live another 11.2 years while women of the same age another 14.6 years. By 2014, the average 71-year-old man was expected live an additional 14.4 years and the average woman another 16.9 years.

Sources did not provide details on whether the government would eliminate RRIFs or simply adjust them. But the changes demonstrate how keen the Conservatives are to court seniors, well known to be enthusiastic voters.

Eng said her group has hammered home that idea repeatedly in its meetings with government officials.

“Our point has always been: ‘Look, these are your voters, your most avid and politically engaged voters,'” she said. “‘So, now, you really want to ignore the pleas of this group?'”

Finance Minister Joe Oliver recently hinted that the party’s long-held promise to double the contribution limit on tax-free savings accounts to $11,000 could also be a showcase item in the budget.

Increasing TFSA limits would also be popular with seniors, particularly those who can no longer contribute to RRSPs or those who lost big during the recession, Eng said.

She added that the budget could include something for families that care for a loved one with dementia, a subject she said the government has talked about frequently.

In its 2013 throne speech, the government pledged to “renew investments in health research to tackle the growing onset of dementia, and related illnesses.”

The chief executive of the Alzheimer Society of Canada credits the government for making commitments in last year’s budget to support dementia research and for caregivers of those who suffer from a disease that primarily affects older people.

This year, the group has asked the government to provide $150 million over five years to create a national dementia strategy, a project Mimi Lowi-Young says received support from provincial health ministers last fall.

Lowi-Young said the group worked closely with the health minister, finance minister and the Prime Minister’s Office in putting forward its request.