Increasingly activist Senate plans amendments to Liberal budget bill — again [Service Fees Act escalator clause?]

Will be interesting to see if the concern over automatic indexing of alcohol excise taxes is followed by the same concern for the automatic indexing of government service fees (Budget bill will increase service fees with less accountability, say critics):

At least two parts of Bill C-44, the omnibus legislation that implements the government’s budget priorities, are likely to see substantial amendments when the bill arrives in the chamber next week. It’s not yet certain they have enough votes to pass, but both have some support in all three groups of senators.

Under an amendment that will come from independent Sen. André Pratte, the section of the bill that creates the Canada Infrastructure Bank — a new agency that would use public funds to help attract private investment for infrastructure projects — would be separated out for further study in the fall.

Pratte said it’s highly unusual for a large financial agency to be created through omnibus legislation, and the Senate must take care to properly consider it.

“We simply lack time, because summer recess is approaching,” he said. “It’s a 3oo-page bill, and the infrastructure bank is a new, complex institution, and an important one. We need to study it in depth to make sure we get it right.”

Many senators also oppose a measure in the bill that creates an annual inflationary increase in the excise tax on alcohol. A special briefing for senators on that aspect of the bill took place on Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Claude Carignan, who sits on the Senate banking committee and was the Conservative caucus leader until recently, said Conservatives will look favourably on both potential amendments.

“If somebody moves a motion to split the bill (to take out the infrastructure bank)…probably, we will support this initiative,” he said.

The alcohol tax is also a concern, he added. “I can confirm that many senators on our side have a problem, first, with raised taxes, but also to do with an automatic system of inflation. We have concerns because it’s something where you raise taxes without Parliament authorization.”

If the whole Conservative caucus votes for the amendments, the support of just a dozen other senators would be needed for passage.

Source: Increasingly activist Senate plans amendments to Liberal budget bill — again | National Post

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Budget bill will increase service fees with less accountability, say critics

More on the government’s plans to repeal the User Fees Act and replaced it with the streamlined Service Fees Act (no changes or amendments made by the House FINA committee). The critique by Roy Cullen, the author of the User Fees Act, is revealing:

As the Liberal Member of Parliament for the federal Ontario riding of Etobicoke North from 1996 to 2008, Roy Cullen had the relatively rare accomplishment of having a private member’s bill pass with strong support in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

In 2004, Bill C-212, An Act respecting user fees, received royal assent. The bill was intended to increase accountability, oversight, and transparency for the way in which the federal government sets fees for various services, from providing Canadians with passports to giving them access to national parks.

But the government’s current omnibus budget Bill C-44 proposes to replace the User Fees Act with a Service Fees Act that would come into force next April and which would, Mr. Cullen argues, reduce public-service obligations to justify raising prices to Parliament.

His bill required federal departments and agencies to clearly explain how user fees are determined, and identify their cost and revenue elements, as well as create standards comparable to those in other countries where comparisons are relevant and “against which the performance of the regulating authority can be measured.”

The Service Fees Act is silent on those two points. It also seeks to automatically raise fees every fiscal year by the percentage change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which concerns Mr. Cullen.

“Some of these user fees have never been justified in a way my bill required them to be justified,” he explained in an interview this week from Victoria, where he now resides. “They’ve never undergone benchmarking to determine whether they met the performance standards identified in the legislation.”

He recalled that when he was developing the User Fees Act, several departments and agencies sought exemptions on the basis their user fees were “unique” and could not be compared against those charged in other jurisdictions. “In some cases, there was some validity to their arguments, in others, it was just a cop out,” Mr. Cullen said.

However, a 2016 internal Treasury Board document, obtained by CBC News earlier this year under the Access to Information Act, stated that 84 per cent of user fees have not been revised since the User Fees Act was passed. A subsection of the act that would reduce a user fee if it failed to meet its performance standard has resulted in a “disincentive to amend fees,” said the memo to Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.), which also noted the “significant time and effort…required to prepare proposals to amend or create fees” under the User Fees Act.

“While fees have not increased over time, costs have. This resulted in an increase in the rate of taxpayer subsidies for government services that benefit private interests.”

Roger Ermuth, assistant comptroller general in the Treasury Board Secretariat, who wrote the memo obtained by the CBC, told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance last month that based on information from the latest available departmental performance reports, the federal government collected [in 2014-15] $1.9-billion in user fees, but the associated costs to deliver services were around $3.4-billion.

But he indicated that the goal isn’t necessarily to increase fees by $1.5-billion to close the gap.

Former federal official Andrew Griffith, who served as director general of citizenship and multiculturalism in what is now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada until his retirement in 2011, believes there has to be a consideration of the public interest in setting and hiking government fees beyond recovering the costs of providing services, as there was with the User Fees Act.

In a brief he presented to both the House and Senate finance committees, Mr. Griffith also recommended that any proposed fee increase in the proposed Service Fees Act that exceeds the annual CPI adjustment and which affects the general public, such as citizenship or passport application fees, should be referred to the relevant Parliamentary committee for review, “rather than the after-the-fact reporting required in the proposed Act.”

He said while the “User Fees Act consultation process and justification requirements may have been too onerous, the Service Fees Act goes too far by removing all meaningful transparency and consultations,” and Mr. Griffith argues that the proposed legislation could have a further impact on citizenship applications whose numbers have decreased from 198,000 in 2014 to 92,000 last year, in part, because of increasing fees, according to his analysis.

In 2014, the citizenship-application processing fee jumped from $100—a price that had remained unchanged for 20 years—to $300 and then $530 later that year after the federal Immigration Department obtained an exemption from the User Fees Act. The first increase was announced in February 2014 when the former Conservative government unveiled Bill C-24, The Strengthening of Canadian Citizenship Act, and was subject to Parliamentary review. The second hike was revealed in a Canada Gazette post just before the Christmas break in December 2014, “all but guaranteeing no one would notice at the time, and resulting in no debate,” Mr. Griffith wrote in his brief.

He added that had automatic consumer price indexing been allowed, the citizenship application fee would have only grown to $150 in 2016. Instead, an immigrant couple must pay $1,060 (plus an additional $100 right-of-citizenship fee each), and $200 for every child, to apply for citizenship.

“Over time, there will be a larger percentage of the population that will remain permanent residents unable to afford citizenship,” Mr. Griffith said in an interview.

“From a policy perspective, Canada has always had the model that we don’t just select immigrants, we try to select future citizens to fully integrate and participate in Canadian society.”

He would like to see the Service Fees Act distinguish between “public benefits,” such as for citizenship applications where the government could split the cost to provide the service with applicants, and “personal benefits,” such as for passport applications where the government could take a full cost-recovery approach in providing Canadians with the travel document.

Source: Budget bill will increase service fees with less accountability, say critics – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

Former MP and Minister Roy Cullen on the Service Fees Act (Budget 2017 Bill C-44)

Former Minister Cullen’s submission to the Finance Committee’s hearings on the omnibus Budget Bill C-44 and the User Fees Act/Service Fees Act:

It is disappointing and somewhat disconcerting that C 212, An Act respecting user fees, will be repealed and replaced by the Service Fees Act. It took me roughly two years to steer my Bill through Parliament where it received unanimous consent.

I am told that since C 212 received Royal Assent in March 2004, only roughly nine user fee proposals have followed the process outlined in that piece of legislation. For me it begs the question, did Departments/Agencies not believe their proposal would meet the criteria laid out in C-212, or were the user fee proposals not that important? Some parts of C 212 may be somewhat cumbersome and I support any streamlining that will improve the efficiency of the legislation.

With respect to performance standards, will the Treasury Board and TB Secretariat ensure that the performance standards that are proposed by Departments and Agencies are realistic stretch goals and not unambitious targets? Will these performance standards be benchmarked against jurisdictions with similar fees? While I appreciate that, consistent with C-212, consultations with interested persons and organizations are required (Art. 12) and that complaints will be reviewed by a panel (Art. 13), Bill C-212 calls for the department or agency to “establish standards which are comparable to those established by other countries with which a comparison is relevant and against which the performance of the regulating authority can be measured”. {Art. 4(1)(f)}.

Departments will be inclined to set performance standards that they can meet, and in many cases they will be inclined to argue that comparisons with other jurisdictions cannot be made.

Source: https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/FINA/Brief/BR8953638/br-external/CullenRoy-e.pdf

 

The pendulum swing on government service fees: C-44 Service Fees Act proposal

The recommendations from my  brief to the House and Senate Finance Committees and the related article in Policy Options, based in part of how the previous government was able to increase fees twice within a year with minimal scrutiny:

While it is unlikely that the Commons and Senate finance committees will undertake a serious review of the proposed “Service Fees Act,” the following suggestions would reduce the possibility for potential government abuse of fee setting:

  • Insert a provision that explicitly allows for public interest considerations, rather than just cost recovery, to be applied when fees are set. The Treasury Board included public interest considerations in its guidelines for the User Fees Act. But as a fundamental principle, this should be written into the Act itself, rather than relying on subsequent regulations or guidelines.
  • Require that any proposed increases that are twice the annual consumer price index adjustment, and that directly impact the public (e.g., passport fees, park fees), be referred to the relevant Parliamentary committee for review in advance.
  • Ensure that Treasury Board Secretariat regulations and guidelines reflect these two points as good practices, even if the government chooses not to amend the Act.

While there may have been a need to streamline the consultation process for fee increases, the proposed “Service Fees Act” makes it too easy for government to raise fees without any meaningful public consultation and debate. The government needs to ensure a reasonable balance between efficiency and consultation, particularly for those fees that affect the general public.

Source: The pendulum swing on government service fees

House/Senate Brief: Bill C-44 Division 21: Risks and Implications of the Service Fees Act

Liberal bill would automatically increase user fees for federal services by rate of inflation

This kind of fundamental legislation should not be part of an omnibus bill but needs to be debated separately. As I have written before (The impact of citizenship fees on naturalization – Policy Options), CIC/IRCC obtained an exemption from the User Fees Act for citizenship fees in Budget 2013.

This allowed the department to raise fees twice in one year with minimal consultation and arguably misleading Parliament both with respect to the impact of the exemption (i.e., fee increases would not lead to a decline in applications) and that the second increase (from $300 to $530) was not mentioned during the C-24 hearings in either the House or Senate:

The Liberal government has introduced a bill that would significantly increase the fees that Canadians pay for a variety of federal services, such as campsites, fishing licences and passports.

In an omnibus budget bill brought forward Tuesday, the government proposes a new Service Fees Act that would automatically hike hundreds of fees by the level of inflation each year.

The move would also make it much easier for departments to apply for fee increases to better match the cost of providing services to individual Canadians and businesses. The proposed law is slated to come into effect April 1 next year.

The federal government collected about $2 billion in various fees in 2014-15, the latest year for which figures are available, but estimates it cost $3.4 billion to provide those services — resulting in a massive shortfall of $1.4 billion.

FedBudget 20170322

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s last budget only hinted at the significant changes in user fees being contemplated. Over the four years, starting April 1, 2018, the government expects to collect $364 million in additional fees. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The measure was briefly mentioned in last month’s budget document, which estimated aggregate fee revenues would increase by $36 million in 2018-2019, and by $147 million in extra revenues by 2021-2022.

The measure does not target specific fees. Rather, it replaces 13-year-old legislation that effectively froze fees by making it too onerous for departments to apply for increases as costs rose.

Federal officials estimate only about 20 per cent of all federal fees are captured by the User Fees Act of 2004. But the new legislation would capture almost all fees, and would require government to report in detail to Parliament each year on the amounts collected versus the cost of providing services.

Opposition critics have called the measure a tax grab, which can especially hurt low-income Canadians.

But a spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison, who is shepherding the new user-fee regime, says the bill would relieve taxpayers of the unfair burden of paying for services enjoyed by individuals and corporations, while it also increases transparency.

Exempts some fees

“The government is always looking for ways to minimize costs for taxpayers and making the fee system transparent,” said Bruce Cheadle.

“We want to give everyone equal access to high-quality government services and we’re going to ensure middle-class Canadians aren’t disproportionately footing the bill for this.”

The new bill exempts some fees from the new regime, including fees under the Food and Drugs Act and some fees considered too small to be material.

The government also suggests that some costs, such as those related to food safety, will not always be fully charged back to users because there is a public good also attached to some government services.

CBC News first reported on the government’s plans in February, citing an internal briefing note for Brison that argued fees have been largely frozen since 2004 as departments shied away from the complex regulatory process of arguing for increases.

The briefing note from August 2016 said 84 per cent of existing user fees have not changed in 13 years, and cover a diminishing fraction of the actual cost of delivering the services.

Despite the fresh measures to increase fees, Brison last year eliminated all retrieval, processing and reproduction fees under the Access to Information Act. And this year, Parks Canada is waiving entry fees for its national parks and historic site to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Source: Liberal bill would automatically increase user fees for federal services by rate of inflation – Politics – CBC News