The Liberal government, in all its mean-spirited wisdom, has cut more funding to legal aid in BC. The Legal Services Society is going to have to shut down all but one of its regional offices and lay off more than 50 staff. This is in addition to a similar round of cuts in the spring. If you're going to hit the poor while they're down, why not spit in their faces too?
Today Mike de Jong, Attorney General, said that they had actually increased the budget of the LSS this year. I'm not sure what numbers he's looking at, but I'm guessing not the same ones that I am. And he has the gall to claim that a shortfall in other funding sources is to blame. Mike, let me walk you through the LSS funding gallery, just so we can be clear:
In 1993, the BC NDP decided to tax legal services in BC in order to make them pay for themselves, a move still opposed by the legal profession in BC.* In 1996, after several years of tax collection, Liberal MLA Jeremy Dalton asked the Clark government, "Can the Attorney General tell us what the annual revenue produced by the legal services tax is? Is that money going to deal with the legal aid issue, or is it just falling into the great black hole of general revenue, and there's no accountability for it?" What a great question, Mr. Dalton (more on this below).
Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh answered that $73m was collected, but that even more was given out to LSS. In 2001, before the Liberals formed government, the LSS received about $88m from the province, probably about what they received in taxation revenue from legal services. The Liberals slashed the budget by about 35% when they came to power. Slight increases over the past 8 years have brought the government disbursement to $69m, a figure that was meant to remain this year despite huge increases in demand for their services (example?). This led to service and staffing cuts, but the head of the LSS was confident that the budgeted amount would stand. A few months later, they're cutting even more.
When the Liberals slashed the LSS budget, what do you think they did with those taxes they were collecting on legal services? Yep, right into general revenue. The numbers aren't entirely clear (hopefully more on this soon), but it's clear that by cutting the LSS budget but maintaining the taxation level, the Liberals were benefiting by about $30m per year over the past 8 years, maybe more. When it was introduced by the BC NDP, the tax was meant to fund legal aid in BC. Instead, it goes straight into general revenue, unattached to the legal services it was meant to fund. Mike de Jong was a member of the Liberal caucus in 1996 (double-check) when Jeremy Dalton asked that question above, and it looks like he needs to answer it himself, 13 years later.
Mr. de Jong, as Attorney General, can you tell us what the annual revenue produced by the legal services tax is? Is that money going to deal with the legal aid issue, or is it just falling into the great black hole of general revenue?
* As recently as February of this year the head of the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch, in a submission to the Finance Committee, argued that the tax should be abolished.