Quebec tables new, slimmed-down economic stimulus bill after failing this past summer
Bill 66 speeds 181 infrastructure projects and seeks to address criticism over environmental reviews
Bill 61, the Quebec government's last attempt at injecting stimulus into the COVID-battered provincial economy, foundered this past August. Now Quebec Treasury Board President Sonia LeBel is taking another run at it.
This time, it is a more modest, circumscribed effort that LeBel said is focused less on creating new economic activity than it is on speeding up proposals that are already on the books. It also seeks to reassure critics who condemned Bill 61 for going too far in limiting environmental reviews.
The government has announced roughly $3 billion in additional infrastructure expenses for the current financial year, and it wants to get some of that money flowing.
Bill 66, tabled in the National Assembly Wednesday, aims to accelerate 181 publicly funded proposals, including sprucing up government buildings, expanding highways and at least one large-scale transit plan: the extension of the Montreal Metro Blue line.
It will apply only to those projects, which include 50 new seniors' residences and CHSLDs, 40 school sites, 52 road and transit projects, and eight government office renovations.
"These projects are going to recoup between two and 36 months, in some cases," LeBel said. "You might tell me two months, two months, that's pretty minimal. For most it's around six months, if I were to give you the average."
The CAQ government's first attempt at legislation to kickstart the economy was put forward by Christian Dubé, who was Treasury Board president at the time. He is now the health minister.
The original bill was harshly criticized by environmental groups, legal experts and the opposition parties for running roughshod over environmental and anti-corruption rules.
LeBel says those concerns have been addressed in the new proposal.
"We listened, we heard, and we adjusted," Lebel told a news conference in Quebec City.
Quebec's Environment Ministry will conserve all its oversight and approval powers. But the bill would streamline the environmental evaluation process, notably by allowing documents and studies to be presented progressively during ongoing reviews rather than all at once.
The requirement for automatic public hearings could be lifted in some limited cases, government officials said, but would be replaced with a targeted public consultation that Lebel said would be focused entirely on pressing environmental concerns.
Taken together, the new measures would lop between three and 11 months off the timeline for environmental assessments, which often extend beyond 18 months in cases where risks are considered high.
The bill also carves out a special exemption for two roads – highway 117 in the Laurentians, and a stretch of highway 30 associated with the Réseau express métropolitain (REM). They won't be required to follow the usual environmental review process at all.
LeBel cited pressing public safety concerns in the first case, and insisted the fact public consultations will be short-circuited doesn't mean the department won't apply stringent regulations. The exemptions, she pointed out, should shorten completion times for both projects by nearly two years.
The environment provisions of Bill 61 helped hasten its demise, and there are already signs of dissatisfaction at the attempt to address the multiple concerns about the previous bill.
A coalition of Quebec environmental groups, including Équiterre and Nature Québec, issued a joint statement attacking the government for "once again presenting environmental standards as an obstacle to (economic) recovery."
The Confédération des syndicats nationaux called Bill 66 "an unacceptable step backward" in terms of the environment. The union federation also criticized the proposed legislation for focusing too narrowly on infrastructure, which it says is "a sector occupied mostly by men, overlooking women and workers in other industries that also need support from the state."
Quicker expropriations, stricter anti-corruption oversight
The draft legislation would make it easier for the government to expropriate land for capital projects but it also provides an appeals mechanism for those who feel the financial compensation is unfairly low. The bill would also allow more latitude to cover court costs.
The government calculates the measures will reduce expropriation timelines by four to 36 months.
The bill also proposes to confer significant new powers to the Autorité des marchés publics (AMP), which oversees public procurement and public contracts.
There had been concern that rushing any infrastructure programs might lead to shortcuts and the possibility of corruption.
LeBel described the AMP's beefed up role as a countermeasure, a way to balance expediency with rigour.
Currently, the AMP is allowed to investigate complaints but the new law would empower it to initiate investigations. And those probes will no longer be limited to the transport sector, the body will have free rein over all 181 projects covered by the bill.
The AMP will also take over the oversight of subcontracts, and will have the power to suspend, modify and even cancel contracts.
The bill also provides an accountability mechanism whereby progress reports will be published every six months on the state of the projects. The Environment minister's office will also be required to provide public updates.
Quebec is also trying to make it simpler to launch construction projects on government-owned land by exempting them from local urban-planning regulations when it comes to obtaining building permits; in many cases municipalities are required to amend zoning rules before permits can be granted.
LeBel said the measures are meant to expedite the construction of school and seniors' residence projects by cutting out administrative red tape and allowing projects to begin before formal approvals are granted.
The Union des municipalités du Québec, which represents the province's towns and cities, said it welcomes the new measures.
Finally, the government is pledging to speed up the disbursement of funds for projects with a budget of less than $20 million.
"Liquidity is important for our contractors, our builders, our entrepreneurs, we understand that well, particularly in the current environment," LeBel said.