Thursday, February 20, 2003

Still providing the footnote at the bottom for people with a little extra room.

Liberals' tax beaks working mainly for the rich
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals have proved their critics right. Their tax policies have worked a lot better for the rich than they have for most people in the province.
Finance Minister Gary Collins disagreed when that proposition was put to him in the budget lock-up. But the numbers tell the story.
The Liberals pitched their 25-per-cent income tax cut - delivered on their first day in office - as a benefit to all taxpayers. That was true, although the benefit was a lot greater for people being paid lots of money. A single person with a $125,000 income got a $4,260 tax cut; a person being paid $40,000 got a $670 break.
Nothing particularly wrong with that. A progressive tax system means the more you earn the more you pay. When it comes for a reduction, the same principle works in reverse.
But since then the Liberals have introduced a string of new taxes, fees and increases, which have hit all taxpayers with the same weight.
Medical Service Premiums jumped 50 per cent, taking $219 a year from both taxpayers' pockets. The new gas tax will take another $120. Driver's licence renewal, $7. A week in a provincial campground and a few walks in a popular park another $46. Education property tax increase, maybe $20. Sales tax increases vary because rich people spend more, so figure $40 more for the middle-income earner and $85 for the $125,000 man.
It's not an exhaustive list, and doesn't include costs imposed because of cuts to medical insurance coverage and other fees.
But add it up, and you find out that $450 of the middle-income earners' tax cut has been clawed back. His net benefit is now $220, about $4 a week.
For the $125,000 man the new taxes and charges will cost $500, leaving him with $3,760 in tax savings.
What's it mean? Actual tax cut for the middle-income earner, about eight per cent. For the big earner, 22 per cent.
And do the same math, and you'll find that for anyone earning less than $35,000, the tax cut benefits have been wiped out and they're paying more now than they did when the Liberals took power.
That wasn't what the Liberals promised. In the election campaign they never talked about a big tax break for the rich, or an immediate across-the-board 25-per-cent tax cut. The only commitment was that within four years people in the bottom two tax brackets would benefit from the lowest tax rates in Canada.
They do. But they've also seen much of that clawed back. The Liberals cut personal income taxes by $1.5 billion and business taxes by about $700 million. Since then, they've taken back about $1 billion in new taxes and fees, with more to come.
And in the process, they've cut services and shifted the cost of government off the income tax system - which is progressive - and on to fees and flat taxes. The cost of government has been shifted from the highest-earning British Columbians to the middle-income groups.
The odd thing is that economists can make a good argument that the only cuts the Liberals should have made were reductions for high-income earners and businesses. If the goal is to encourage investment and business group, the tax system has to be competitive for the people who are most mobile, and the most important to attract.
Someone who is earning $40,000 a year isn't going to decide to move to Alberta for the tax benefits; someone being paid $200,000 - or looking to recruit people to run a business - may consider the tax system in deciding where to live or invest.
UBC economist Jon Kesselman notes Saskatchewan, faced with the same issues, only cut top tax rates, telling the public that was the best way to ensure a competitive business environment while protecting services.
It's an approach that looks fairer - and more open - than B.C.'s vanishing tax breaks for low and middle-income earners.
Footnote: Are the tax cuts paying for themselves? Income tax produced $6 billion for government services before the cuts. This year they will be about $4.2 billion. At the curent rate it will be 2008 before they have recovered. Not necessarily bad; but not what the Liberals promised.

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Tina Thorpe's pain is raw and visible. So is her determination.
Ms. Thorpe is working to ensure that street racers face punishment that reflects the seriousness of the crime.
She's angry at the conditional sentences imposed on two men found guilty of criminal negligence causing her mother's death. She wants the law changed so conditional sentences are no longer an option in such cases.
For all her courage, I don't hold out much hope that she'll succeed.
The plea for guidelines to ensure conditional sentences aren't used in cases of violent crimes isn't new. Provincial governments, including B.C., other provinces, opposition parties and the victims have all lobbied the federal government for change.
But Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon and his predecessors have brushed off those concerns.
Perhaps Tina Thorpe can have more success here in B.C.
Conditional sentences make excellent sense as an alternative to prison. People usually come out of jail more damaged and dangerous, or at best about the same. (About one in three of the people locked up in a provincial jail re-offend within two years.) Pragmatically, the only ones who should be in jail are people who are dangerous, or people whose actions are so bad that we want to demonstrate our outrage.
Not only does jail not work in preventing future crimes, it's expensive. It costs about $55,000 a year to keep someone in provincial jail in B.C.
Conditional sentences are an alternative.The offenders' freedoms are limited. Society gets some measure of protection and imposes a sanction that should - theoretically - deter both the offender and the others. And we save a lot of money.
They are still supposed to be punitive, viewed legally as the equivalent of a jail term, simply served in another setting. Offenders may be allowed to leave their home to work, or attend school, but the rest of the time they are supposed to be serving something much like a jail term, albeit a comfortable one.
And that's where Ms. Thorpe might successfully focus her campaign on the province.
A string of studies and reports, not just in B.C., have found supervision of conditional sentences is weak to non-existent. Most offenders are on the honour system, with little or no monitoring to ensure they aren't ignoring the terms of their sentence.
Two years ago Victoria provincial court Judge Robert Higinbotham sent government a message about his concerns about the lack of supervision.
`The supervision that now takes place under conditional sentences is minimal at best and perhaps nonexistent,'' he said, opting to jail an offender instead of a conditional sentence.
The number of conditional sentences has been rising steadily since they were introduced by Ottawa in 1996. The number of provincial probation officers available to supervise them has not kept pace. When Judge Higinbotham expressed his concern, about 1,600 people were on conditional sentences in B.C. That's climbed by 20 per cent since then, with no increase in staffing.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman acknowledges the problem, and says the province needs to do better. Electronic monitoring is one solution, but B.C. use the devices unless the court makes the order. Only about 100 offenders are under that kind of supervision.
But the budget still shows that the ministry plans to cut the number of supervision workers and increase the number of offenders each one supervises by 10 per cent.
Other provinces have faced the same issues. Quebec studied its problems in 2001 and introduced a protocol that requires at least five telephone checks on offenders each week and at least one or two home visits each month, made randomly at any time of the day or night. And it supported the program by hiring more than 100 additional probation officers.
Conditional sentences make sense.
But an Alberta court of appeal panel that reviewed their use expressed the same concern that British Columbians should have about the province's current commitment to adequate supervision.
"Virtually all the conditional sentences which we have so far seen do little to restrict the convicted person's freedom and leisure," the panel wrote.
"Properly used and carefully crafted, a conditional sentence will serve its intended purpose. Improperly used or skimpily drafted, it will undermine respect for the law."

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - There is quite a lot of bunk being talked about recall, starting with the claim that campaigns to oust Liberal MLAs are some sort of an abuse of the legislation.
Says who, exactly?
More than 80 per cent of voters in a 1991 referendum backed recall. The questions was simple: "Should voters be given the right, by legislation, to vote between elections for the removal of their member of the Legislative Assembly?"
It doesn't say that right should be limited, with recall only allowed if an MLA knocks over a convenience store or gets caught drunk driving. If people had thought those kind of limitations were important, they could have voted against the recall proposal. They didn't. Voters thought that they should have the right to oust their MLA if they were disatisfied with his job performance.
Gordon Campbell used to think so too. Back in 1998, when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association challenged the recall legislation, Mr. Campbell was scornful. Recall is about accountability, he said then, for promises and performance.
And who better to decide if an elected representative is doing her job than the voters?
But the recall forces are just trying to refight the last election, complain some Liberals.
They have short memories. Within months of losing the 1996 election, Mr. Campbell was urging recall campaigns against NDP MLAs. Voters should recall MLAs immediately, he said, because they were breaking campaign promises and had misled voters about the province's finances before the election.
In fact Mr. Campbell has consistently argued that it should be easier to recall MLAs and promised again in the last campaign to ease the rules. When the current law was proclaimed in 1996 Mr. Campbell dismissed it as a sham.``Any MLA that has ever been in this House could survive this particular process,'' he said. The recall requirement - signatures from 40 per cent of the people eligible to vote in the last election - was "virtually unattainable," he argued. (Which should make the premier wonder why Liberal MLAs are now so nervous.)
Liberals concerned about recall being misused under some imaginary set of rules should also see Deregulation Minister Kevin Falcon for some background. Before he received Mr. Campbell's backing support as a candidate, Mr. Falcon helped run Total Recall, a campaign aimed at recalling enough NDP MLAs to bring down the last government.``This is a referendum against the government," he said then. "Desperate times call for desperate measures." Falcon's plan called for campaigners to argue that even if voters had nothing against their MLA's performance, they should help oust him to help defeat the government.
Recall campaigns can be messy, costly and sometimes mean-spirited. (Like many other elements of our political system.)
But 80 per cent of British Columbians said voters should have the right to recall their MLAs between elections. They didn't say that only politicians should be able to decide when recall campaigns are justified, and it's now insulting to hear suggestions voters are unable to decide for themselves when it is appropriate to recall an MLA.
The claim by some Liberals that the NDP is using recall to refight the election isn't supported by evidence or common sense. Recall campaigns are costly and consume volunteers' time and energy, and the NDP can't afford the financial or human cost. (Especially when the result might be a byelection that would see a demoralizing defeat for the party. That's certainly what would have happened in Val Roddick's riding.)
The practical arguments against recall aren't any more compelling. Verifying the signatures can be costly, but so are elections. And the risk of wasted time can be reduced if proponents are reminded of the penalties for collecting signatures from ineligible voters.
Voters wanted recall, and they supported a system that leaves the decision on when it is justified - when an MLA is breaking a promise, or not performing - up to their collective judgment.
As Mr. Campbell observed in 1998, it's not that strange a concept. "There are very few jobs where you do not have the right to fire someone who is not doing their job," he said then. And surely the voters are the best ones to decide when that's justified.

By Paul Willcocksxxx
VICTORIA - Jean Chretien's political financing reforms has major flaws, but it at least recognizes a problem that B.C. should also be taking
Mr. Chretien's reforms miss the point. They attempt to reduce the influence of corporate and union donations in politics, when what really needs to be reduced is the influence of money,
And his effort ignores the obvious: any plan drafted by a government in power will be tainted with the perception of self-interest. xxx
The people need to deal with this problem, not the party in power. And he if Mr. Chretien needed a model, he could have looked to the province's planned citizens' assembly on electoral
There's much to applaud in the federal proposal, especially provisions that would end the secretive fund-raising free-for-all that's now allowed for nominations, leadership races and political slush funds. Spending would now be subject to limits, and donors would have to be
Unions and corporations will be barred from giving money to parties - although they will be able to give up to a $1,000 to a candidate - and individual donations will be limited to $10,
Most Canadians would welcome an end to corporate and union donations. A study done in 2000 found almost 90 per cent of Canadians believed "people with money have a lot of influence over the government." Heritiage Minister Sheila Copps recently confirmed the reality behind the suspicion, blaming the influence of big donors for the Liberals' hesitation on the Kyoto
Anyway, suspicion is logical . Corporate directors have a legal obligation to act in the best interests of shareholders. So if a company chose to donate $250,000 to the federal Liberals, through a web of subsidiairies, there would have to be some expected benefit. xxx
Corporations could argue that they have a legitimate interest in government policy, and chose to contribute to the Liberals to prevent an NDP victory. But the Liberals had the last election won. The company didn't need to spend a cent to ensure that result.
Which leaves the average citizen to wonder if the corporation had to be hoping for some future benefits from a greatful government. xxx
Mr. Chretien's plan makes a reasonable stab at reducing the influence of corporations and
But then he misses the next step. Instead of chosing to force all parties to spend less, the Chretien plan turns around and replaces almost all the lost donation revenue with direct transfers from taxpayers. Parties would get $1.50 per vote garnered in the previous election. That would mean the Liberals would get $7.9 million a year from taxpayers, Alliance $4.9 million, Conservatives $2.4 million, Bloc Quebecoise $2.1 million and the NDP $1.6-million. Taxpayers would also double the amount they contributed to parties' election campaigns, covering half the
The reforms fail to question the underlying assumption that politics should be a big money business. Mr. Chretien missed the chance to consider whether the public would be better served by a political system that wasn't fuelled by money, that encouraged the participation of ordinary Canadians instead of scores of paid staffers and dealt more with ideas and less with the obsessions of political
Premier Gordon Campbell says he's not interested in looking at political financing reform. The system works pretty well, he says. That's a normal response from the party in power, which has a huge fund-raising advantage, able to hold high-priced lunches with cabinet ministers or seek momney from companies - or unions - interested in being in the government's good books. But if the federal rules had been in place, Sustainable Resources Minister Stan Hagen could have taken over the fisheries file without questions being raised about campaign donations he received from aquaculture companies. xxx
But Mr. Campbell already has the tool he needs to deal with the issue. The assembly of ordinary citizens being asked to prepare a plan for electoral reform, based on Gordon Gibson's report, will be at work this year. The same assembly could tackle the issue of money in
When 90 per cent of the public think that money, not the common good, drives the political system, it's time for action that goes much farther than Mr. Chretien's