COLUMN: Controlling how our taxes are spent

What if when filling out our income taxes we were given the opportunity to earmark how we want our money spent?

Sentenced this week to six months in jail for tax evasion, local acupuncturist Warren Fischer still has many supporters, some of whom say he was courageously protesting the use of his tax dollars on the war in Afghanistan.

Let’s accept that at face value, for it raises some intriguing ideas.

What if when filling out our income taxes we were given the opportunity to earmark how we want our money spent? Not on a macro level, perhaps, but at least by ministry or department. Lord knows most of us figure we could do a better job than those who actually have that power.

(Just witness the ongoing debacle and daily embarrassment that is the Senate. Give Canadians the chance to show how much they value the upper house and watch its annual appropriation fall to zero. Those members who insist it is more than a den of thieves, freeloaders, and partisan hacks could continue to sit — as volunteers.)

How would our spending priorities compare to what government decides on our behalf? Governments have to keep an eye on the big picture and balance competing interests. Individuals might be similarly even-handed when divvying up their tax contributions, or they might wish to starve certain ministries and plump up others.

The resulting collective judgment would be fascinating. I couldn’t begin to guess which areas would see increased or decreased funding — except that MPs would probably be expected to do their jobs for a lot less.

Taken a step further, what if income tax was voluntary? You not only choose how it’s spent, but pick the amount. In this instance I would wager that total voluntary tax revenue would be less than ten per cent of what’s now collected by force and the difference in contributions between the lowest and highest earners would be negligible.

While frustration over government spending is understandable, all levels do engage in budget consultations with the public — though not many of us take advantage of it. A federal experiment in online consultation has averaged fewer than 800 submissions per year since 2010. Critics dismiss it as a gimmick.

At the local level the opportunity for input is much greater, but turnouts at budget presentations are usually abysmal. Whether this is because we don’t think our opinions matter, don’t care how our taxes are spent, or are just stupefied by numbers is hard to say.

•••••••

Following a story on nelsonstar.com last week about a woman suing a Nelson police officer, Philip McMillan of the local compassion club asks: is the smell of marijuana from a vehicle probable grounds for a search?

Well, maybe … depending on the province.

Certainly not in Saskatchewan, where a man was acquitted after a judge concluded that his arrest was a violation of his charter rights and the scent of marijuana was not sufficient grounds for a search or arrest.

The crown appealed the verdict, but in 2008 the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the decision.

Judges in BC are more prone to take each case on its own merits.

Richard Hewson’s legal blog cites two 2011 cases with different outcomes. In the first, Kelowna RCMP stopped a vehicle for speeding. The officer smelled marijuana, arrested the driver, and searched the vehicle. He found an empty hockey bag that reeked of pot and $72,000 in cash. The driver was charged with proceeds of crime offences.

In his ruling, the judge noted “The law in Canada is somewhat inconsistent regarding whether the smell of marijuana alone can create reasonable grounds for arrest. The inconsistency is from province to province and sometimes even with the same province.”

In this instance, the judge decided the arrest was justified.

In another case, police pulled a vehicle over, smelled marijuana coming from inside, and searched the four occupants. They found 28 grams of pot on one passenger. The judge ruled that while the smell of marijuana could potentially provide the basis for an arrest, for a variety of reasons that didn’t apply here. The search was deemed unconstitutional and the evidence excluded.

In each of the above cases, the searches resulted in criminal trials, whereas in the Nelson example no drugs were found, no charges were laid, and the case is playing out as a civil suit.

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