“After over a year of waiting, the government has confirmed our suspicions; they have given up on our Northern Ontario communities,” stated Vic Fedeli, PC Finance Critic in response to the Liberal budget announced this afternoon.
The budget, which contains a massive $5 billion operational deficit, does little for the people of Northern Ontario says Fedeli.
"In order to artificially balance their budget, they used $2 billion from cap and trade, over $500 million in pension assets (despite the Auditor General’s advice not to), $1.5 billion in money from a federal transfer, and $1 billion from the sale of Hydro One and government properties.
"The Budget takes a massive cut of $70 million out of the Ministry of Northern Development and mines. The Ministry helps to establish mining operations all over Northern Ontario, creating good well-paying jobs that help to grow our Northern economy — obviously not a concern of this government."
Fedeli says it came as a serious shock to see that this year’s budget removed all mention of the Ring of Fire.
"After three years of promises the Wynne government has completely abandoned this critical mining project.
“Even with an extra $5 billion of one-time funds, the Liberal government has still found a way to leave the people of rural and Northern Ontario with less. This is shocking and disappointing to Northerners. This government should be ashamed.”
Meanwhile, the government is promising to inject billions of new dollars into health care in its first balanced budget in a decade, a fiscal plan designed to appeal to nearly everyone in the province ahead of an election next summer.
Crafted by a party in power since 2003 that has been faring poorly in recent polls, the $141-billion budget has measures targeted at both young and old, people who access the health-care system and anyone who owns or rents a home and pays an electricity bill.
The centrepiece of the plan is a $465-million-a-year pharmacare program for children and youth, which would cover prescription medications to treat most acute and common chronic conditions for people under age 25, with no deductible or co-payment. It would start Jan. 1.
The plan will be most beneficial for youth who currently are not covered under private plans or the Ontario Drug Benefit program for social assistance recipients, but government officials weren't able to say how many people that captures.
In total, the government is promising $11.5 billion in new spending on health care over three years, including money to address hospital overcrowding, funding for mental health and addiction services, cash for hospital construction projects and home care funding.
The budget also includes funds for new child care spaces, money to build schools, measures aimed at seniors and previously announced cuts to electricity bills and plans to cool the housing market.
Much of the projected spending, however, is spread out over multiple years, well past the June 2018 election. But Finance Minister Charles Sousa said his "socially progressive" budget is not a ploy for votes.
"These decisions that we're making today are not based on election cycles, they're based on long-term benefit for the people of Ontario," he said.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said the budget is not, in fact, structurally balanced, because of one-time asset sale money — such as the sale of shares of Hydro One — and accounting "tricks," such as counting public pension surpluses as assets, against the advice of the province's Auditor general.
"This budget is a patchwork attempt by a desperate government to fix the mess they've created before the next election," he said. "If they lose this next election this is spending they'll never have to be accountable for."
The price tag for the Liberals' centrepiece pharmacare plan is not in the budget itself and was provided only verbally by staffers.
"Listen, that document is what, 296 pages long," Sousa said when asked about the absence. "You can't put everything in the document."
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who just this week announced a New Democrat government would bring in universal pharmacare for people of all ages, said the Liberal plan seems last minute.
"I think it's quite curious as well," she said. "All I can think of is that they made it up on the back of a napkin before they got to today."
The Liberals had promised no new taxes on families, though they are increasing tobacco taxes by $10 per carton over the next three years and giving municipalities the power to introduce a hotel tax.
In addition to balancing the books this year, the government is now projecting balanced budgets through to 2019-20. Despite reaching balance, however, the province's debt continues to grow.
It is projected to be $312 billion this year, growing to $336 billion in 2019-20. Interest on debt is the fourth largest spending area, at $11.6 billion.
Historically low interest rates helped the province get to balance, but interest on debt is still projected to be the fastest growing expenditure area, at an average 3.6 per cent from 2015 to 2020.
Nonetheless, the government paints a rosy economic outlook, projecting two per cent average GDP growth through to 2020, driven by exports and business investment.
On the infrastructure front, spending is growing from a promise last year of $160 billion over 12 years to $190 billion over 13 years. The additional $30 billion will go toward new hospital projects, school renewal and child care expansion.
Ontario will also move ahead with planning a high-speed rail corridor between Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, London and Windsor, the government said in the budget. The project could cut travel times from Toronto to Windsor from the current four hours to two.
Under the education banner, about $16 billion is earmarked over 10 years to build and improve schools at a time when the government is coming under fire for rural school closures. Another $200 million will go to creating 24,000 child care spaces and subsidizing 60 per cent of them.
Seniors are also specifically targeted in the budget. A public transit tax credit for people 65 and older will see 15 per cent of eligible transit costs refunded with an average annual benefit of $130. That is estimated to cost the government about $10 million a year. The measure comes after the federal government announced it was eliminating a 15-per-cent tax credit for commuters who buy a transit pass.
There is also $11 million over three years for a seniors community grant program and another $8 million over three years for new community centres with seniors' programming. The province has also earmarked $100 million over three years for a dementia strategy that will include helping patients and their caregivers find support and improve training for health-care workers.
Meanwhile, senior's lobby group CARP is generally happy with the budget.
The Ontario government will provide additional funding of $20 million in 2017 for approximately 1.2 million hours of respite services for caregivers. This funding will be used for personal support services or nursing support at home, allowing caregivers to schedule breaks from the crucial work of caring for a loved one.
“Caregivers endure significant costs to their own health, including high levels of stress and burn-out as a result of the challenges associated with caring for a loved one,” said Wanda Morris, VP of Advocacy for CARP, who has been advocating for more caregiver respite support, among other financial supports.
“CARP is pleased to see the Ontario government has responded to our campaign asks with necessary supports and additional investment.”
The government also announced investments in education and training programs for unpaid caregivers to help them better provide care to their loved ones at home.
The government also announced a new streamlined Ontario Caregiver Tax Credit, which combines the Infirm Dependent Tax Credit and the Caregiver Tax Credit. This new tax credit allows caregivers not living with the dependent to claim the new credit. It also means caregivers cannot claim the credit unless their dependent is an “infirm.”
“Financial relief to caregivers is critically important. We know that informal unpaid caregivers save Healthcare Systems across Canada $26 billion annually, so it’s good to see some of those savings being used to alleviate caregiver stress.” said Morris.
With files from Allison Jones, The Canadian Press