TORONTO — Ontario reported a record spending increase in the first fiscal year of the pandemic but that figure was still lower than anticipated, prompting criticism the government held back funds that could have helped the fight against COVID-19.
The province's deficit also came in $22.1 billion lower than expected thanks largely due to tax revenues from pandemic support programs.
The latest figures were contained in a report issued Friday on Ontario's public accounts for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ended March 31.
Program expenses for that fiscal year were $169 billion – up $16.7 billion from the previous year – the province reported.
The spending was nonetheless $5.6 billion lower than forecast because Ontario's third wave peaked later than expected – after the 2020-21 fiscal year ended.
There was also lower than anticipated use of services like doctors' visits, non-emergency procedures, and social assistance programs that were harder to access due to pandemic measures and shutdowns.
The province said the unspent money will be accounted for in this fiscal year.
But critics questioned why the $5.6 billion wasn't spent in advance of the deadly third wave that threatened to overwhelm hospitals in the spring.
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said funds had been made available to support Ontarians and argued the unpredictability of the pandemic made it difficult to nail down exact projections.
"Every province is dealing with a lot of uncertainty and volatility in the numbers," he said. "One thing is certain, that we'll make sure that we have ample resources."
The Opposition New Democrats criticized Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives for "withholding" money that could have been spent earlier to protect people from COVID-19.
"The public accounts report shows that Doug Ford could have blunted the third wave. He chose not to," NDP finance critic Catherine Fife said in a statement.
"Every time Doug Ford refuses to spend money on services families count on, it's real families like ours that pay the price."
The government also said its deficit for the last fiscal year came in at $16.4 billion – a figure that's $22.1 billion lower what was projected in the budget.
The deficit discrepancy was attributed to higher than expected tax revenues as people and businesses received COVID-19 supports from various levels of government, and to the challenges of making projections during the pandemic.
"During a COVID-induced recession, government investments in jobs and the economy resulted in unprecedented increases in personal and corporate income tax," Bethlenfalvy said.
"I can say with confidence that our government will continue delivering on our number one priority of supporting people and jobs."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press