STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Mr. Russell MacKinnon
First of all, does each and every member have a copy of the memo that Mora sent out, dated Tuesday, December 5th? We have extra copies. On Page 1 of that particular memo, as you can tell, there are five issues, items or topics for discussion; universities - federal funding component; the national highway system - federal contributions; the Halifax Port Authority; the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission; and student aid.
Of course, during the process of our deliberations on each of those, I believe some secondary issues came up here and there, so we may want to include them or just focus, strictly, on the primary objective. I am open for suggestions.
MR. DAVID MORSE: Since there are now four Liberals in Ottawa, does that mean we are going to get a National Highways Program?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, it won't be a road to nowhere, that is for sure.
MR. MORSE: I thought it was a pertinent question.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Do any members have any suggestions as to how they would like this report articulated? For example - okay, let's start off the conversation - we have to establish a benchmark here somewhere, for each of the five. If we were to propose doing what would be the equivalent of an executive summary of each hearing, you know, the witnesses, what the issues were and the highlights of each of the hearings, do we have a deadline on this?
MS. MORA STEVENS (Legislative Committee Clerk): This part would be for the 2000-01 report and it was basically to get some idea for recommendations right now, for the ones that are coming forward, since they are so fresh in people's minds, since we just dealt with them this fall.
I had thought, and it is only a proposal, to stick with the new outline that had been approved on the 22nd of November which is what the 1999-2000 report is going to look like. That will be ready by mid to end of next week for the members. Then they can look at those and decide whether or not they wanted to make any further recommendations. There were a couple that - or just one, I guess - it was CBCEDA, the one that had a recommendation that went to the House. That would, of course, be included.
This was, basically, to say, if we want to stick with the same framework, that is fine, or I can do something different. But it is to talk about the possibility of recommendations, if anyone had ideas for recommendations on universities, national highways, that way they can be incorporated, as I do those sections, and we can send them out, in smaller batches to say, okay, this is what is being looked at. You would have annual report meetings every two months or so, just to make sure that it is an all-encompassing report, that it doesn't get left behind, and recommendations are not made.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Our caucus have recommendations on a number of - I just received this from our research. I reviewed it with them yesterday. Jim, would you like to comment, or do you want me to proceed?
DR. JAMES SMITH: No, you proceed.
MR. CHAIRMAN: What we will do is we will table them for all members of the committee to have. It is fairly straightforward with regard to universities, our possible recommendation there would be, "Urge federal government to allow for university specific funding to improve physical infrastructure." That was one of the recommendations we had.
On the national highway system, "Recommend that 75 kilometers of Highway 101 funding be made a priority when presenting case to Ottawa, not 49, as indicated . . ." It could be 78 kilometres. I thought it was 75 kilometres. Well, let's say, whatever the intent is, to go the full distance, 75 kilometres or 78 kilometres and not the 49 kilometres that was recommended at Public Accounts by the department.
Under the Halifax Port Authority, "Recommend the Province work with the Port Authority in assisting with the construction of a third terminal." That was one of the things we saw as a possible recommendation.
Under Student Aid, "Urge Province to re-instate the loan remission program. Allow for the repayment of student loans based on income." Those were our thoughts on it. Now, that can be included or not included but at least it starts a basis for discussion.
MR. BARRY BARNET: As someone new to the committee and new to this whole process, I have never seen a previous report. Do we have any previous reports that, maybe, could be circulated to some of the newer members so that we can have a look at them to see what they look like?
MR. CHAIRMAN: I don't believe we have one per se.
MR. JOHN HOLM: There was one in the works a couple of years ago.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That's when John Leefe was Chairman, I believe.
MR. HOLM: No, I think it was when Howard was. John Leefe had done one way back when.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
MR. DARRELL DEXTER: We prepared an individual report on the casino allegations that we issued but that wasn't a committee report.
MR. HOLM: It was submitted to the committee. What was the subject, Jim?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Jim has a copy.
MR. BARNET: Oh, you have one, do you?
DR. SMITH: For the year 1995-96.
MR. CHAIRMAN: It should be included in your package there, Barry.
DR. SMITH: Yes, this is an earlier package, October 30th.
MR. BARNET: My concern is that, now, sort of after the fact, after these meetings were coming up, as proposing specific recommendations, to me, it would make sense that if there are going to be recommendations that will be encompassed in a report, those recommendations would actually come out of the individual meetings, not after the fact - like, some cases, you know, months later. I'm a little bit concerned that some time has passed and - I will take some
time to read this because, quite frankly, I wasn't familiar with what had been in these reports in the past.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I believe, Barry, for the sake of ease of conversation, that is why we just focused on the last five, because they were more recent, rather than go back and try to regurgitate all the material that was fading from people's memory. John?
MR. HOLM: Just a question. I wasn't at last week's meeting because Maureen, as Education Critic, filled in. Was there any discussion - I know there was with the Auditor General, previously, because I had raised it - about the private trade schools in terms of the Department of Education monitoring more closely the private trade schools, in terms of employability and, I guess, employment opportunities for graduates?
There had been some discussion, I think, with the Auditor General, that those who defaulted on loans, a larger percentage, were from the private trade schools. That is not to cast aspersions, certainly, by any stretch of the imagination on all private trade schools because there are an awful lot of very good ones.
A suggestion - and I don't know if it came out of last week's meeting or if people would be supportive of this - is that the Department of Education more closely monitor courses offered by private trade schools, similar to the kind of thing that is done for the community college system, itself. If a community college is offering a program and there is no employment prospect for those who take those courses, then the community college will phase out that program.
There is no similar kind of monitoring done in the private trade schools and, of course, those students then qualify for student loans automatically, as soon as they are accepted. I don't know if, as I say - this is a long-about way of saying this - but if there was any discussion of that last week at the committee, and if there is any recommendation in that regard, I, personally, would like to see the committee - but, again, as I say, I wasn't there last week - I would like to see the committee recommending something like the Department of Education monitor the private trade schools to ensure that there is employability in that field for those who would be entering the program, before they would qualify for a student loan. I don't know. I throw that out just for discussion purposes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: No, that is an excellent point, John. In fact, I did raise that question with the deputy minister. Hansard will show that I raised that. Maureen did raise it here with the Auditor General . . .
MR. HOLM: No, I had the week before. I was here that week.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I raised the issue but they didn't really give anything quantitative.
MR. HOLM: I'm just wondering if this committee wants to make any recommendations because it is not the department but, rather, this committee that would make recommendations.
I raise it again today simply because I had a call yesterday from another individual student who is going into a program. I know the program. I know if the person graduates from that particular program, they have a slim to small chance of gaining employment in that field. Tuition is very high and, of course, this was a person who was trying to upgrade their skills to get employment, and, of course, would be getting a large student loan to do so.
I just feel badly for somebody going into a program, spending a lot of money going into debt, if there really isn't much prospect of them gaining employment that will even halfway begin to pay back their debt.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I agree. About three weeks ago, I had a visit from four students - three students attending a private trade school for a teacher's aid course. Each one of them had student loans. They were indebted to the tune of somewhere in the vicinity of between $5,000 and $6,000. Now, they are laying off teachers' aids in Cape Breton so there is really no call for them at this point and there are no job prospects whatsoever but they will be saddled with this student loan. It is a legitimate concern.
MR. HOLM: There is a hairdressing school up in your area. I don't know if it is still in operation. What was it called?
MR. CHAIRMAN: There are four.
MR. HOLM: One of them that . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: That was the beauty salon. They reined that in, that particular institution.
MR. HOLM: A lot of people got burned.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, what if we go through the first one. Let's say, universities.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, on John's comment about the private trade schools, my recollection, John, is that the deputy went into that pretty extensively. They gave us a number of charts which showed statistics, based on the various courses, that showed everything from an 11 per cent deliquency to 100 per cent. The 100 per cent had a little asterisk in that it was, I think, a private trade school of three people that was held in somebody's home. It may have been a beautician. My recollection is that there was quite a bit of time, actually, spent on this very topic.
I also recall that perhaps one of the concerns was that sometimes the location of the trade school may affect the graduate's chance of finding employment because there are some parts of the province that suffer from a higher level of unemployment, at least for the time being, and that that could impact negatively on that school's chance of continuing to be recognized for student loans.
MR. HOLM: I don't know if that is the same particular one but the one that I am thinking about used to take people into this course with a Grade 3 or Grade 4 education. They would accept them into the program, of course, collect the money. They took the courses but then they didn't have a snowball's chance of ever being able to write the profession's exam and pass it because they just didn't have the skills but the school got their money, automatically qualified.
MR. MORSE: I wonder, Mr. Chairman, since John has touched on that subject and we have already had some discussion, if maybe something that would capture that concern that he just brought forward in the form of a recommendation back to the Department of Education would be in order, that there be some guidelines put in place to ensure reasonable chance of employment for . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: To the effect, urge the Department of Education to more effectively monitor private trade schools?
MR. MORSE: All.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, all.
MR. MORSE: With a view to ultimately being able to secure employment.
MR. HOLM: There is a, what do they call it, HRDC does a skills needs evaluation. That is not the proper term but they have tools that they use to find out what skill sets are going to be needed or are needed. The community college system, for example, uses that as well as tracking former employees to find out if, in fact, they will continue to offer programs. Just because something is in the private sector, I guess my contention is that if the Department of Education registers the school, that is the same as giving them the stamp of approval for that program. It is all well and good to say buyer beware and the student has a responsibility to check out the course. Public monies also go into it in terms of the student loans that we would end up being liable for. So we do have a public interest to protect as well as, I would suggest, a bit of a moral obligation to assist those who are going into programs, that we have really given our stamp of approval for. That has just been an old bugaboo of mine for many years.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Are there any other suggestions? I guess on that point, John, you are suggesting something to the effect, urge the provincial government to reassess the effectiveness of private trade schools in today's economy, or all programs.
MR. HOLM: To evaluate programs offered by private trade schools, along the same kind of guidelines as the community college system.
MR. DEXTER: We discussed this last time in the context of student aid. So I guess whatever recommendation that we make in this regard has to come out of the student aid aspect. I wasn't quite sure what that was.
I have a series of things that I would like to propose as well, coming out of the student aid sessions. I guess the first one is I think if we wanted to be constructive in terms of making recommendations, I will tell you what I had in mind and you can criticize or endorse as you like. First of all, I would say that we should urge the reintroduction of the Nova Scotia Student Bursary Program. It was very clear, and most of these deal really with student debt, the graph or the chart that was shown to us shows a fairly consistent progression toward debt by students at the post-secondary level. We now know that more and more students are coming out with more than $40,000 in student debt. I made the point last time. People always think it is funny. You say well, I wonder how many students meet and marry out of university. I'll bet you it is a lot. I will honestly bet you it is a lot. So if you get two of them coming out with $40,000 apiece, there is a young couple starting off after university with $80,000 worth of debt. It is untenable, really.
The other thing, another way to approach this would be that the repayment of student loans should be tax deductible and the province should enter into negotiations with the federal government to this end. I will also point out that this was a proposal that was put forward during the federal election by the Progressive Conservatives, as I recall. That is only a partial answer because, of course, it presupposes that you get out of university and you have a job and you have a job at a high enough income level that you are going to pay tax and we know, in fact, that that is not necessarily the case. At least it is a measure that we could recommend to help with the amelioration of student debt.
The last thing that I thought about as a way to look at student debt, and you can juxtapose this next to both of these other measures as something that should be investigated, and that is the idea of forgivable student loans, based on success. In other words, you complete the program you are in and secondly, you continue to reside in Nova Scotia because what you are doing is you are rewarding success and you are rewarding the idea that people who get educated in Nova Scotia, go to Nova Scotian universities, stay here and help retain our brightest young people.
Anyway, those are the three recommendations that I thought we could make with respect to student aid that would be useful for the government to consider in its budget deliberations coming up in the spring.
MR. CHAIRMAN: In response to the second one that you referred to in terms of the tax deduction, didn't the deputy minister indicate that there was a deductibility there of 17 per cent per annum? Am I correct?
MR. DEXTER: I can't imagine. If there was any deductibility, a lot of people with student loans would be surprised because I have never heard of it.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will have to check with the minister on that but I believe he did indicate there was some type of tax credit.
MR. WILLIAM LANGILLE: I agree with the tax deductible but I certainly don't agree with the other two you are talking about Darrell.
MR. DEXTER: Why?
MR. LANGILLE: Well, first of all when you are talking about people with $40,000 each, I don't see any reason for people accumulating that, $40,000 debt each.
MR. DEXTER: But it is a reality. They are.
MR. LANGILLE: I say I don't agree with why they would have to. First of all, do they not work during the summer? Do they not have part-time jobs? Or do they just go on the system and accumulate all this debt? Now I am looking at my own kids. Both of my children went through university. They both have two degrees.
MR. DEXTER: How long ago?
MR. LANGILLE: About 10 years ago, no, less than that. They never even had a student loan because they went out and worked during the summers but people who are going for $40,000 debts . . .
MR. DEXTER: Tuition has tripled in the last 10 years.
MR. LANGILLE: Well, it was less than 10 years ago. Anyway, neither one had a student loan but my son-in-law has a student loan and he is paying it back, I believe it is tax deductible, certainly I do. To forgive them, I don't know.
MR. BARNET: I guess a couple of points. One is that I really thought, and maybe naively, that the annual report would be sort of a summary of what was discussed and that you wouldn't all of a sudden reintroduce a whole bunch of new recommendations as a result of what was there. It would just sort of summarize what was discussed and what the preceding year looked like but now it appears as if this is just another opportunity to make more recommendations even after the fact in many cases.
With respect to Darrell's issues, I understand completely what he is saying and why he is saying it but getting back to reality, those three recommendations will cost money. Obviously it is going to have a major impact on budgets. This idea of coming out of school with a $40,000 debt is a reality for some people but not for everybody. I know a number of people who are attending university right now, I have a family member who is attending university right now, who has no student debt.
MR. DEXTER: Did you read the statistics?
MR. BARNET: Statistics are talking about broad groups. I will tell you that there are opportunities for people in the metro area, for young people to earn money to put toward their education and you are right, not everybody takes advantage of those opportunities but they are there.
MR. DEXTER: It is harder on rural students.
MR. BARNET: Is that right? Well, I know a number of people from rural areas of Nova Scotia who live here right now. I can tell you a couple of examples. A guy from Port Hood and an individual from the Middleton area, both of them live in metro, both go to university and neither one of them have a student debt, none, zero. They are in their third year. I have a family member, a sister, who is raising three children . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Are they working in their own rural community or are they working in metro?
MR. BARNET: One of them works in metro, the other one works in the Valley but I will tell you this, that my sister with three small children, a single mother, is in her final year at law school and has a very small student loan. There are opportunities for people and quite frankly, forgivable student loans, if that became a policy of the province, nobody would ever put any value on that education ever again. (Interruption)
MR. DEXTER: First of all, the idea of forgivable student loans is the same as the Nova Scotia Student Bursary Program in reverse except you guard against everybody getting it simply for the first year and then not completing.
MR. BARNET: Darrell, have you sat down and thought about who is going to pay for this and how much this is going to cost? This is typical of what we get from the members of the New Democratic Party, Mr. Chairman. Quite frankly, . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. Just before I recognize John, perhaps in a sense of trying to make sure that things will flow smoothly and to accommodate everybody's concerns, why don't we consider the idea that we have an executive summary for each of these issues and if there are certain recommendations that we can all agree on, we will list those. If there are recommendations that we don't agree on, we will list those under the various caucus names, like PC recommendation or NDP or Liberal, as separates. That way, everybody's interests are satisfied and if there are some commonalities, then this is a committee recommendation. That way, we don't get bogged down with individual positions that we just can't agree on. Is that okay?
AN HON. MEMBER: Agreed.
MR. LANGILLE: Mr. Chairman . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: I have to recognize John first, he had his name on the list.
MR. HOLM: Yes, it is unusual instead of blurting in. Just a couple of points. First of all, I think a point that Bill and maybe, Barry, you are also missing, is that when somebody applies for a student loan, the student loan department determines your eligibility and they assess you with certain revenues of your own. You are expected to work. You are expected to have raised a certain amount of money that goes toward your education. So if somebody, over a period of time, gets $40,000 - and not everybody, by any stretch of the imagination gets that high, it would be nice if nobody did - but if somebody gets whatever size student loan debt at the end of the day, that is after it has been determined that that is the amount of money they were eligible for and needed, a student can't go in and just apply and say I want $10,000 and just automatically get it. If their parents have the means, they are expected to contribute unless they are extremely disabled or some untoward thing and the students are expected to have worked through the summer and to have raised enough money and saved enough money to contribute toward the cost of their education.
We can say that there is no need because there are opportunities, those opportunities, I would suggest, are taken into consideration when they are calculating the amount of money that a student will be eligible for, in the way of a loan, in any one year. It has been tightened up tremendously from what it had been in the days when people like me went through. Then, almost anybody could get a loan, that is not the case anymore.
Another thing that I would just point out, yes, things do cost money, there is no question about that but we also get rewards from that. If we are making recommendations, those are only recommendations based on what we heard, it is just asking the government to take these things into consideration. If they have different information and cost is one of those - whether it is or isn't eligible - it would be reasonable for the government to come back and say those are good recommendations, good suggestions and we would like to move forward with them as soon as the resources are available for us to do that. That doesn't say the committee is saying you have to do it next year.
I guess the final point that I will say is that we always talk about, for example, people in the medical profession going elsewhere. What percentage of our graduates, for example, in medicine, go south of the border and take up employment there after we have spent, let's say $1 million to educate them as a doctor?
MR. MORSE: It is $190,000 for a general practitioner, for undergraduate and public school.
MR. HOLM: A very large chunk of change, I think it is more than $190,000 but I had heard the figure before.
DR. SMITH: Nobody knows.
MR. MORSE: The figures aren't available.
DR. SMITH: It depends on who you are talking to and I don't mean that facetiously.
MR. HOLM: Just the other point is that way back when, when I took education, I got free tuition. I was given free tuition, as were all students back in the 1960s who were taking education because they needed teachers. In return for that I had to sign a legal, binding agreement that said that I would stay and teach in Nova Scotia for a period of no less than two years or I had to pay it back. That is not a new idea, it is not a new idea to have bursaries, we have had those in Nova Scotia before and if they were valuable programs then they can be valuable programs again today. I see nothing wrong with suggesting that the government reconsider those kinds of programs.
MR. MORSE: We have agreed on a format and I think that is fine.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We have agreed on a format and that would certainly be included as one of the NDP recommendations. Obviously, we are not going to have unanimity on that. We do have some agreement to urge the provincial government to reassess - we will get the exact wording and before anything is finally agreed to, everybody will have a chance to review it and then we can fine tune it but at least we have to get to that stage. One is with regard to the private trade schools, reassessing in terms of - as Darrell pointed out - tying into the value for dollar, in terms of student loans. The other one is some tax deductibility, there is some general agreement on that, urging the respective levels of government to consider the possibility of having student loans as a tax deduction.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, we are just researching that one and we should have an answer . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will just put it in that spot for now and then we can always pull it back out and put it into another bracket under any one of the three caucuses. In fairness, Brooke is next on the list for speakers.
MR. BROOKE TAYLOR: I would just put a comment on Darrell's suggestions. Obviously, if they are approved and adopted those recommendations would certainly benefit our students in this province. Everything, unfortunately, comes with a price tag but this Millennium Scholarship Foundation, related topic, I am not sure what the eligibility criteria is but I have heard from a number of constituents that they received the Millennium Scholarship, didn't actually apply for it, but found out in the very next student loan year, the following year, that that is applied against them as income. When I read this - and I say this although it may seem like a partisan shot - these press releases by the government of the day, the federal government, is nothing more than poppycock. They are talking about this putting $9 million back into the pockets of students in the province. It will complement existing programs and avoids duplication. I would like to see us, along the same lines as Darrell's suggestions, perhaps send a strongly worded letter to Ottawa recommending that these scholarships be forgiven in terms of income or whatever the proper terminology would be. (Interruptions)
MR. DEXTER: I think that is a provincial decision.
MR. TAYLOR: It doesn't say that in the agreement . . .
MR. DEXTER: I know but I think it is a provincial decision on how to assess income because the provinces . . .
MR. HOLM: To the provincial portion.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well now that we have this package perhaps we can take that one on notice at our next meeting to make sure that each caucus takes a position on it or no position at all. It is ironic because when you go back and review Hansard, when this whole thing was announced, perception became reality quickly because all three caucuses in the House of Assembly supported this Millennium Scholarship Program.
MR. DEXTER: There is nothing wrong with the concept of it, the application is where it falls down and as Brooke was saying, I am not sure, but my understanding is that the administration of the student loan program is done by the province so it is the province that assesses the questions and applicability of income and all of that and eligibility. It would have to be a recommendation for the province to do that, as opposed to the federal government. I would agree entirely by the way.
MR. TAYLOR: So maybe both . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Maybe if you could develop in the short term essentially what you would be recommending.
MR. TAYLOR: I guess what I am asking is that the Millennium Scholarships, which are federal dollars, not be applied against the students as income in following years, in the subsequent years that they receive it because that is what is happening. Some of them go out and work - not many but some do have good-paying part-time jobs - and the money they earn plus
the scholarship is applied against their student loan and it puts them in a different category for subsequent years and it penalizes them, actually. When they find out they say, I thought that was going to be treated like a bursary but it is treated as absolute income.
MR. HOLM: And it is taxable.
MR. TAYLOR: So I think both levels of government, Darrell, might be . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: What you are saying in terms of a recommendation is to urge the provincial and/or federal government to review the terms of reference of the Millennium Scholarship Program?
MR. TAYLOR: Yes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That way you are not boxing yourself into a definitive position but you are raising the flag that maybe there are some concerns with it and if they go back and look at the terms of reference and find out that it is more punitive than rewarding to the students then they will do something and if they don't, they won't. But at least we raised the flag for them.
MR. TAYLOR: I don't know if now is the time, Mr. Chairman, but have you heard from constituents who claim, oh gee, I received a Millennium Scholarship, it was all unbeknownst to me until I was notified?
MR. HOLM: Yes, they didn't have to apply for it.
MR. TAYLOR: No and the parents are scurrying around saying what does this mean? Can you find out? That is still going on and I am just wondering . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: The biggest problem with my constituents and the Millennium Scholarship is that once they receive it and once they finish university, there is a certain period of time that you would have forgiven, to be able to get a job and to start paying, well, that is automatically eliminated. That was their concern once they accepted the Millennium Scholarship, so it was punitive in that context.
MR. HOLM: There is another issue too, let's be realistic, especially if these are just being given out without people even asking for them. If somebody comes from a family where there is sufficient means that that student does not have to work two or three part-time jobs, as some students do, the person who is able to go through without having to worry about money, without having to worry about working or trying to work 20 hours to 30 hours a week on top of their student loan, they have a much better chance of being successful than the student who is working two or three part-time jobs, academically. Therefore, if the funds are just being given out on the basis of who automatically has the highest marks, you are sometimes, I would suggest, penalizing those students who come from the poorer financial circumstances, which is counter-productive.
MR. CHAIRMAN: So is it generally agreed then? Will we recommend that they review the terms of reference of the program?
MR. TAYLOR: Pointing out that we believe, if we do as a committee, collectively, maybe we can in a non-partisan way, agree that the Millennium Scholarship amount - and it has to be over $2,000 - should be tax exempt. That is clearly what we believe, review the terms of reference but do we believe that it should be tax exempt?
MR. DEXTER: Tax exempt or income exempt?
MR. TAYLOR: Pardon me, yes, income tax exempt.
MR. DEXTER: For assessment purposes.
MR. TAYLOR: Yes. I think that should be clearly represented in our recommendation or suggestion, whatever.
MR. HOLM: Should it only be Millennium Scholarships or should it be all scholarships?
MR. CHAIRMAN: We have to be careful not to get bogged down with too many details and then we will lose . . .
MR. DEXTER: Why don't we just forward it as a recommendation and then we can . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, a general recommendation, I think.
MR. TAYLOR: That is fine.
MR. LANGILLE: Maybe I am missing the boat here, Russell, but is this a year end report?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, we are trying to articulate on . . .
MR. LANGILLE: But we are bogged down on one issue for 50 minutes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I agree and that is why I am trying to, as you probably noticed, keep it general and let's not micro-manage because ultimately what we will have is three different caucuses arguing until the cows come home.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, with the Conservative colleagues' agreement, on Darrell's second recommendation, I think I would like to put forward partially tax-deductible student loan principal payments for students graduating for high debt loads, partial, not the total. If that is agreeable?
MR. LANGILLE: Not with high debt load, with any debt load, you can't start to go up the ladder.
MR. MORSE: There are so many dollars available in the pot and I guess if you have to prioritize them I would say the person who graduates with a $40,000 . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Anyway, Darrell is next then we are going to have to move on.
MR. DEXTER: There is a simple solution to this which is to do what you said, to have the executive summaries come forward, have all the caucuses consider them, this will address Bill's problem of why we are doing 50 minutes on student aid and we haven't talked about anything else yet. At that point in time each caucus can make whatever recommendations it wants, we can come back and have a look at all of the recommendations, filter out the ones we can jointly agree on and the ones we can't jointly agree on would simply go under recommendations from the various caucuses. That would resolve it and I am not sure, if we take that approach, that there is a heck of a lot more for us to do this morning.
MR. CHAIRMAN: But let's bear in mind this was what all three caucuses were supposed to be prepared for today. We brought our recommendations.
MR. DEXTER: We haven't seen the executive summary though, in fairness.
MR. CHAIRMAN: No, no, that is the purpose of the round table discussion.
DR. SMITH: Mr. Chairman, we have agreed on the format, there is no problem there.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
DR. SMITH: Our recommendations aren't last but I guess that is okay, is it? We are going to have the documentation requested there?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes. Just to clarify it to be crystal clear on format, so all members will be in agreement, we have an executive summary, we will have recommendations that will permeate out as a committee and then the ones the various caucuses don't agree on, we will have them listed as, let's say PC recommendation, or Liberal recommendation, or NDP recommendation and just leave it at that. That way, everybody's point of view is considered and the unanimous ones. Given the fact that this is really the first detailed attempt at trying to develop a process for accountability and determining whether we are really getting value for dollar on all the work we are doing, or assessing the value for dollar, better put.
MR. TAYLOR: Just so we are crystal clear, Mr. Chairman, after the executive summary and the recommendations and the ones listed as NDP, Liberal, Tory, what do you see happening to those recommendations that don't receive unanimity?
MR. CHAIRMAN: They will just be listed under the various caucus Party titles.
MR. TAYLOR: And those documents are . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Will just be included under the title of each caucus.
MR. TAYLOR: Noted.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just noted.
MR. TAYLOR: Are they available for public consumption? I was just a little concerned about that because we could get into exactly what we said we didn't want to get into, as a committee member here - and I think even my colleague to the right, who is usually to the left, suggested (Interruptions) (Laughter). We could really be going down a slippery slope, Mr. Chairman, that I don't think we want to go, as a Public Accounts Committee. That is what I am afraid of.
I think what we agreed to previously was to stick to unanimous - it was the Dartmouth East member, I think, that said we should try to work in a non-partisan manner and agree on things and things we can't, we have to set aside. I don't think we have to start listing them, I don't think that is what we want to do. That is just my opinion.
MR. LANGILLE: Am I hearing this right, that the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives make recommendations? It should be one recommendation from the Public Accounts Committee, is that not right? You can't break up into Parties. That would be terrible.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, all I'm trying to do. . .
MR. LANGILLE: I mean, this is a Public Accounts Committee.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Exactly. I mean, we are here at the wish of the committee. All I am trying to do is to establish some benchmark here so that we can proceed. Otherwise, we are just going to be stuck on one issue all day. Obviously, we are not going to agree on a lot of issues.
MR. HOLM: On that point, I agree, we should be trying to have as much as is humanly possible, a unified report, okay? You can, of course, if you are going to have different Parties listing other recommendations, that is like a minority report contained within it. If we use language like - and Dave, you used it before in one of yours - asking the government to consider or to review, that is not saying that this is exactly what should be done; it is simply saying, take it into consideration. If we use that kind of language, even if - you know, for example, on a bursary program I don't think that there is anybody on the government side who would be opposed to the notion of a bursary program for those in need if the financial resources are available to do that, right? Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think.
If you are using language - if you are coaching it in things like, consider doing it, then I think a lot of the disagreements, actually, are gone.
MR. CHAIRMAN: David, or I'm sorry, Barry, you're next.
MR. BARNET: I agree with what John just said. Quite frankly, I have had a minute to look at this but I would like to see the whole report from last time. I think I will get it from the library, or something, but that is just one section of it. I would like to see what that says.
You know, certainly, there are areas that we can mutually agree on, there is no question about that. I would be concerned if we had a report that included recommendations from an individual or a caucus that weren't agreed, that were just listed as, by the way, here are the ones that we were not able to reach consensus on, I think it should be a consensus report.
We talk about student debt. I don't think it would be a difficult thing for our caucus to agree with a commitment that we made during the election and that would be to consider establishing provincial tax relief programs for students with higher debt. That is not a problem, we can come to an agreement on those type of things. What will happen is, it will become a political document. Here is what the PCs would do; here is what we are going to do and people are going to use this for political gain, rather than to try to do what the intent of this committee is, to look at areas and ideas and provide some direction to departments in government.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just for clarification, this is something that the committee agreed to about 45 minutes ago, when I asked the question.
MR. BARNET: I didn't agree to it.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, I asked. It was generally agreed that we would, for the sake of proceeding in some orderly fashion, do this format and everyone agreed.
MR. BARNET: Well, 45 minutes ago I stuck my hand up to speak and I just got to speak now.
MR. CHAIRMAN: No, no. Now, order. In all fairness, that is a very unfair comment. As people indicate they want to speak, I write their names down and everyone is recognized in sequence. There is no preferential treatment here, and I think that is most unfair.
Second of all, on that point, I asked for some format for us to proceed so that we would not get bogged down on one. This is what the committee agreed to. The committee now has changed its mind and wants to go back to some type of a consensus report. That is fine. I am not imposing any particular will here, I am just trying to develop a process so we can proceed. Now, if it is the wish of the committee to change its mind, then so be it. Bill, then Jim.
MR. LANGILLE: Now, I have only been on the Public Accounts Committee over a year, but what did we do in the past? Did we do recommendations at the year end or is this something new?
MR. BARNET: This is the last one, right there.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Perhaps we will ask Mora to comment.
MS. STEVENS: We have had reports in the past and as I stated before, the reason we didn't have reports in 1997-98 was because the election was called and we don't report after that, it nullifies anything that you were doing, it is in the Rules of the House. The 1997 report was drafted and it just had to be put on the shelf because it wasn't approved and it hadn't been tabled in the House.
We have done reports with recommendations before. What we did is, basically, we sat in a room and fought it out, what people wanted to do. The new process is, get an executive summary out there and make recommendations. We tried to do this before and we did find it sometimes a little cumbersome. We would have a briefing session, a meeting, and then we would have a follow-up the next week. In that follow-up, they would talk about what happened at the meeting, what possible recommendations could come out of it. Then we took those recommendations, wrote them down and then when the draft report came out, they were included.
MR. HOLM: What year is. . .
MS. STEVENS: That was 1993 through to 1996, we did follow-ups. They were encompassed, like, 30 minutes for a follow-up at the first beginning of the briefing session, then you would go on to brief on another topic.
What I might suggest is that after we have a meeting, each of the caucuses would submit a couple of recommendations that they would have from that meeting, I can do the draft summary and then we can have a meeting every so often to say, okay, these are the suggestions
that came forward, here is the executive summary, look at it and then discuss it. That way you are not having a meeting every three weeks or four weeks on the report, but you could do it in little batches. That way, it would be fresh in the minds of people to put in recommendations right after the meeting.
MR. LANGILLE: I think I still have the floor here.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
MR. LANGILLE: That is where I am going right now. We have things that we have discussed months ago in here. It is not fresh in our minds. Maybe we are trying to push too much through on our plate. Maybe we should sit down after each one and say, okay, we have discussed this, now where do we go with it? If we want to make recommendations, have a meeting and then afterwards, the next week, have a meeting to discuss what we discussed, instead of here right now. This is really going nowhere with what we are trying to do here today.
MR. JAMES DEWOLFE: Well, Bill makes a valid point there but as far as consensus of committee, Mr. Chairman - I guess I have the floor now.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
MR. DEWOLFE: I mean, that is why we are here, through healthy dialogue, sometimes a person comes to a meeting with an idea and through dialogue the consensus can change. I think that is a healthy way to conduct a round table discussion.
With regard to the committee recommendations, I, too, believe that this committee has to operate as one voice or we may as well have three Public Account Committees, or three caucus Public Account Committees. Also, with regard to helping students in most need, I have a grave concern that it would take away any incentive for some students, not all but some students, to try to pay down their debts, knowing that at the end of the road or once it reaches a certain point, it will be taken care of. I don't think students should have that in the backs of their minds, the incentive should be to try to work hard to pay down their debts. You know yourself, Mr. Chairman, some students go out there, work hard, save their money and go back to university and others will go out and buy a fancy car and have a good summer.
MR. DEXTER: That was the worst kind of tripe I have ever heard.
MR. DEWOLFE: Darrell Dexter doesn't believe that but I have raised three children who have gone through university and college and they are all different. One will work hard to pay debt off and the other won't, that is just the way people are. We must not take away that incentive to work hard to pay off one's own debt, we don't want to make it too easy for them. I think there has to be a fairness in the system for all students. Whatever recommendations we make should be fair to all students.
MR. TAYLOR: Mr. Chairman, I have said this before, I think what we are unintentionally doing here this morning is trying to complicate what really should be a case-by-case, hearing-by-hearing type process. I would think all MLAs feel similar that we have a lot of meetings, it doesn't matter who we are, I think what we should do is - I know we have caucus after Public Accounts usually - I think we should dedicate 10 minutes, 15 minutes at the maximum, if, during the course of the meeting . . .
MR. HOLM: Public?
MR. TAYLOR: Yes, no difficulty with it being public, I think what we should do is if any member of this committee feels strongly about something then we should either discuss it just before the expiration time or just after the public hearing aspect is held, when our witnesses are present. I think the problem we are having now is we have had a number of hearings, we are bogged down on the student loan issue and there will be cases where I might want to make a recommendation or another committee member may want to make a recommendation where there won't be agreement but we should take that back to our caucus and discuss that and bring it back to the next meeting. To set up specific meetings for recommendations and things like that, I have some difficulty with that, Mr. Chairman.
MR. HOLM: I have a couple of comments. One, I certainly agree with the idea that we shouldn't be trying to make recommendations for something that happened six months or one year ago. As a policy we should be looking at trying to do it in a concise time. To go back though to a couple of things, the point raised earlier, yes, it is ideal to have a consensus in terms of a report but the Public Accounts Committee or any committee doesn't have to have consensus. In fact, there are often minority reports and I have put my signature on insertions that have gone in with committee reports where as a caucus we had different recommendations or things that went beyond what the committee report said.
I almost get the feeling that we are looking at unnecessarily trying to make this into a partisan kind of exercise, and I say unnecessarily, that maybe some government members are a little paranoid that we are going to be making recommendations that are going to embarrass the government. I go back to the point that was raised earlier and Dave, you used the words initially, consider, review. If you are asking a government to consider something or to review it that doesn't mean that the committee is necessarily adopting or endorsing a position, it is saying that we believe the government should be looking at it further. However, if we were to come up with kinds of recommendations like, quite honestly, Jim, the kind of comments that you made a few minutes ago, no way, if those kinds of comments or thoughts were included in the report, my signature would not go on that report.
MR. DEWOLFE: Of course, that wasn't meant for the report.
MR. HOLM: No, I know but that kind of an attitude, there is no way my signature would go on it. But if we are saying things and if we want to have a consensus report then part of it is how we phrase it, what kind of language you use to coach it in. We are just spinning our wheels now.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I think we have had a fairly broad and free-wheeling discussion on process here. The record will show we asked all three caucuses to bring back their recommendations for today so we could have a round table discussion. Obviously, that hasn't materialized.
MR. DEXTER: We made recommendations.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, they are done ad lib here, individually. I am going to make a suggestion and it is entirely up to the committee, that according to each of these five issues that we have here, five topics from universities down to student aid, each caucus prepare some recommendations so that at the next meeting we have we can hear them. In the meantime, direct our staff to prepare an executive summary.
MR. DEXTER: We want those first.
MS. STEVENS: Oh, yes.
MR. DEXTER: We want the executive summaries first, then we will submit our recommendations.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We can probably have that in a week maybe, two weeks? By the end of the year.
MS. STEVENS: Yes, I will have the 1999-2000 from September through to June out by the middle to the end of next week; that was the first part that we talked about. The second half I can start working on as soon as I get the first half done, so maybe even before Christmas since it is only five topics.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The ones prior to these, we are not going to make any recommendations on, we have generally agreed, because it is too far back and it becomes faded from memory. This is a first attempt at trying to ensure a new process is working effectively. Bill, then David.
MR. LANGILLE: The purpose of the Public Accounts Committee is for value for the dollar. Why do we need recommendations? We are not in an inquiry or inquest, why are we recommending? When we have people or witnesses in then it is in the press and everything at that time. I am asking this, I am throwing it out, why do we need recommendations? We are bringing everything forward on the day of our meetings.
MR. CHAIRMAN: That is a good question and rather than bog down a lot of valuable time here at the committee, I may refer you to the terms of reference of our committee, that were initiated first by the working group, myself, John Leefe and I believe, Robert Chisholm, we sat on the inner working committee that developed all of that. This was a recommendation that actually came from the Conservative caucus and was chaired by the Chairman, John Leefe and
approved by the committee unanimously. It is a good point but the history is there and it would take 10 to 15 minutes to give a full explanation. David.
MR. MORSE: Mr. Chairman, I think all of us are anxious for something constructive to come out of these meetings and that is what Dr. Smith spoke to at our last in-camera session, bringing up the concept of consensus. Following along on your suggestion to bring caucus suggestions to the next meeting, I would certainly be in support of this but I am wondering whether it would be possible for those initial suggestions to perhaps be distributed ahead of time and indeed, I am going to ask a few days ahead of time? One of our challenges as the largest caucus in the legislative sub-committee is that there are five of us. It becomes a little more problematic to reach a joint position and we would want to entertain your suggestions in a serious manner and as such, notice would be extremely helpful as to what we were going to face in the committee so that it comes out as a consensus.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, well, you have our suggestions.
MR. MORSE: Yes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: If anything else comes up in between, we will fax them over to our counterparts. I think there should be a time line on it. The executive summary will be ready no later than the end of this year, and that will be distributed to all three caucuses. Perhaps that will allow a week - when are we meeting in the New Year?
MS. STEVENS: We were looking at January 17th, if all goes well, and that is with the Department of Finance on the debt.
MR. MORSE: How it affects the credit rating of the province?
MS. STEVENS: Yes, the credit rating of Nova Scotia. That was the next one - and we were looking at - it is not confirmed yet - for the possibility of January 17th.
MR. MORSE: A briefing session.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Perhaps, can we agree that if the executive summaries are distributed to the respective caucuses by the end of this year, that all three caucuses at least have a list of their primary recommendations on each of these topics prepared by the 10th of January, so that when we do meet the following week, we will at least have some focus and determine whether we have some commonality or not? Otherwise, this will go on endlessly.
MR. HOLM: Can I just ask this? The executive summary coming out before the end of the year, will that have with that the list of what we believe are the agreed to recommendations?
MR. CHAIRMAN: No, it is just an overview, it is an executive summary.
MR. HOLM: Okay. No, no, I know, but . . .
MS. STEVENS: You mean the ones we talked about today?
MR. HOLM: Today, there was some discussion about recommendations before we got into the student aid business. I think there was some consensus on what was being recommended in a number of areas. I am just asking if those - and it is not finalized, mind you, nothing is finalized - but if the intent, when the executive summary comes out, is to include with that what we have already tentatively agreed to . . .
MS. STEVENS: Yes, sure, good enough.
MR. HOLM: Okay. The second thing is, do we want then to wait until January 17th to have our next meeting if everything is out before the end of the year? I don't know if after a briefing session in 10 minutes or 15 minutes we are going to have an opportunity to have sorted through everything. I am asking, should we have a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee to just try to lay to bed, once and for all, this report on, say, the 10th of January?
MR. BARNET: Yes, that sounds reasonable.
MR. TAYLOR: Well, Mr. Chairman, I have to say, and maybe I can be a little more blunt this time, I think we are creating a lot of extra work for ourselves. I listened to the conversation and previous conversations on these recommendations and on the report and from listening to this morning's meeting, I think it is very obvious that we are going to be making a lot of work. I am concerned about action or no action being taken. I don't know if the intent is to have a recommendation for every hearing. I am just a little confused about the process but I will certainly try - if it is agreed by the Public Accounts Committee - to continue to meet, to deal with recommendations, I will do my very best to be here but I really question the value of what we are doing. If we are just going to make recommendations for the sake of making recommendations, there has to be some action taken on the recommendations. I am concerned about that.
MR. LANGILLE: We're going nowhere.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, so are we agreeing to a meeting, on or about January 10th? Is that agreed?
SOME HON. MEMBERS: Agreed.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Hopefully, before then, each caucus will have their proposed recommendations, whether they be light, heavy or whatever? Yes, Jim?
DR. SMITH: I just wonder if I could comment. I, like everyone else around the table, am trying to sort out where we are going. I think it is an attempt to sort of formalize or crystallize, or put into an executive summary, what we are hearing. I think there is a lot of good stuff and it means different things to different people but I think to try to at least get some
summary of what we have heard to document. I think most committees would document historically, if nothing else, what they have heard.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Sure.
DR. SMITH: I think, whether or not we have recommendations is really the choice of the committee. I, as you know, favour consensus recommendations. Other than that, I would rather have nothing in the form of recommendations.
MR. CHAIRMAN: A consensus.
DR. SMITH: The other thing is, this morning, Brooke's point about the Millennium Scholarship was good and all of that. Then I am trying to think of the calls from my constituents, the cases I have worked on, trying to remember what I heard in committee. We had a very slick deputy who was very political, who has given a nice spin to everything. I am a little paranoid on him, I don't mind saying. I want good, accurate information. How does the Millennium Scholarship impact on Nova Scotia?
MR. TAYLOR: It is your government's program.
DR. SMITH: No, that is the point. While I am complimenting you, I am also disagreeing with you.
MR. TAYLOR: I know what you are saying.
DR. SMITH: I don't think the federal government is the only problem. It is a good point because if there is a problem with it, let's make a recommendation to reconsider.
How can I get back some information to crystallize what we heard? We had all those slides and, goodness, if there is anything we should know as elected people, MLAs, we should know something about student aid. Then I get more confused the more I hear sometimes. How is it impacting? Does it mean that you cannot get other student aid when you get that scholarship or that is a strict add-on, isn't it?
MR. MORSE: It is a clawback, that's what it is.
MR. TAYLOR: How quick we forget.
DR. SMITH: Anyway, I think Brooke's point is well taken, that we cannot get bogged down in process and we are trying to work out a process. I am not even clear which ones we are looking at, I am trying to remember, from April on. I guess we are looking at
April. . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: They're listed.
DR. SMITH: Yes, I know they are listed, and then they go back a bit. They have the first ones listed, or the most recent listed first. Then you go back to September 1999.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We're not making any recommendations on any of those.
MS. STEVENS: No, those are just the ones that are coming forward in the book.
DR. SMITH: So we are going to start, really, in September 2000.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
DR. SMITH: That is my impression and I am just wondering if everyone was clear. Yes, great. I think we cannot get bogged down in the process and we have to have a system that works, fairly quickly, if it is just an executive summary - but I think somebody else should know what we have heard, rather than Hansard. Hansard is hard to read and we can't really make it out. Our argument might be with the people who make the executive summary, what the discussion should be more around, rather than the NDP position and that, because if we get into that, then it is going to bog down again. Anyway, thanks.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. The point is very well taken. I believe that is the purpose, have these particular caucus positions before that meeting - because we are under time lines and if the respective caucuses don't agree - let's say, if the Conservative position doesn't agree with the NDP or the Liberal position, all that should be pretty well assessed internally before you come to the meeting, keeping an open mind on any issues that might arise during the meeting. We are not going to just get bogged down on one issue, that is not really what we are here for.
It is agreed, an executive summary will be prepared by the end of the year. We will be meeting on January 10th. Prior to the 10th, that will give each caucus 10 days to at least get some general recommendations, or as I say, some heavy or light ones.
MR. DEWOLFE: On January 10th we will be meeting, Mr. Chairman, here in this room?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
MR. DEWOLFE: At 8:00 a.m., or whatever?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well, 8:30 a.m., if that is settled.
MS. STEVENS: 8:30 a.m.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, meeting adjourned. Thank you.
[The committee adjourned at 9:55 a.m.]