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Finance Minister Joe Oliver answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Finance Minister Joe Oliver answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservatives table wide-ranging omnibus budget bill Add to ...

The Conservative government has once again placed new laws inside omnibus budget legislation, with a wide-ranging bill that affects bridge tolls, a tax-information deal with the United States and penalties for abuse of the temporary foreign worker program.

The first budget implementation bill of 2014 was introduced Friday and it primarily provides details on measures that were first announced on Feb. 11. However, the bill includes some changes – including new laws – that critics say should have been introduced as separate bills to allow MPs to debate and vote on those specific items.

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For instance, the bill includes a proposed law that incorporates a recent Canada-U.S. tax-information-sharing agreement. Canadian financial institutions, including banks, brokers and mutual fund companies, will be allowed to ask customers for their U.S. taxpayer identification, such as a U.S. social security number. Those who don’t comply could face a $100 fine – matching the existing fine for failing to produce a Canadian social insurance number.

The bill also includes a “New Bridge for the St. Lawrence Act” which outlines the rules around replacing the Champlain Bridge and the Nuns’ Island Bridge. The bill stipulates that any user of the new bridge must pay applicable tolls. The Conservative government is pushing ahead with a toll bridge over the objections of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.

Budget implementation bills are meant to provide the legal changes required to enact measures from government budgets. However, the Conservatives have been criticized in recent years for including controversial measures unrelated to the budget in large omnibus bills.

The latest budget bill has 359 numbered pages in addition to an opening summary.

NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen said the bill is another anti-democratic “monster” that makes it hard for MPs to understand what the government is doing.

“The process, of course, is a sham,” he said. “At first blush with [more than] 350 pages of detail, we’re going to have to take another look because we know with this government often the devil is in the details.”

The bill also contains a section to cap roaming rates in the telecommunications sector. That section includes a formula that will be used to determine the caps.

One section of the budget bill indicates that the minister of Employment and Social Development Canada will be given new powers through future regulations to impose fines for violations under the temporary foreign worker program.

A spokesperson for Employment Minister Jason Kenney said regulations that will take effect in early 2015 will allow the minister to fine employers who do not follow the rules. The spokesperson said the fines will be “heavy, severe and constitute our strongest action yet to crack down on abuse of the temporary foreign worker program.”

Budget bills are highly technical documents that involve changes to sections of many pieces of existing legislation. The potential impact of each change is not immediately clear.

The budget bill’s tax-information-sharing provisions follow a deal signed in February between Canada and the U.S. that paves the way for full implementation of a controversial U.S. law aimed at offshore tax cheats – the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, FATCA.

Accountant Kevyn Nightingale of MNP LLP in Toronto said it makes sense that the two governments use the same forms of identification.

“If you are going to start collecting information, you have to do it in a computer-friendly way,” he said. “The only way of doing that is with a unique identifier because there are too many John Smiths out there.”

But Dean Smith of Cadesky and Associates LLP in Toronto pointed out that many dual Canadian-U.S. citizens don’t have U.S. social security numbers, and will now need one. That may require visiting a social security office in the U.S., he said.

One change in the bill that was not mentioned in the budget is a move to dissolve the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Board and to repeal the requirement for the president of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) to submit a comprehensive report every five years on the agency’s activities.

Kelsie Corey, a spokesperson for ACOA minister Rob Moore, said the budget bill’s changes are “minor” and are meant to avoid duplication.

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

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