Ontario Liberals reintroduce pre-election ‘progressive’ budget

QUEEN’S PARK—Premier Kathleen Wynne introduced her Liberal government’s budget on Monday, a document that largely mirrored that on which her government fell sending the province into an election that returned the then-minority Ontario Liberal Party with a commanding majority, stripping the NDP of the balance of power and ending Opposition Leader Tim Hudak’s tenure at the helm of the Progressive Conservative Party.

The Liberals touted their budget as one that “moves forward with a plan to create jobs and grow the economy, building modern transit and infrastructure and helps Ontarians with their retirement, while balancing the budget by 2017-18.”

The government announcement claims “Ontario is moving forward with its plan to build opportunity and security for today and tomorrow. The 2014 Ontario Budget, tabled Monday by Minister of Finance Charles Sousa, takes immediate action to create jobs by investing in a highly skilled workforce, building modern infrastructure and transportation networks, and supporting a dynamic and innovative business climate.”

The budget will complete the rollout of full-day Kindergarten this fall and invest in classroom technology. The budget will also provide 30 percent off Ontario tuition through a grant “to make sure up to 260,000 young people can afford to get the degree or diploma that will lead to more opportunity.”

The budget will also extend the Ontario Youth Jobs Strategy.

A major Liberal plank in the recent election was building modern infrastructure and transportation networks through investments in roads, bridges, transit systems, hospitals and schools. The budget invests more than $130 billion in infrastructure over the next 10 years. Those investments include new dedicated funds that would make nearly $29 billion available over the next 10 years.

Although her plan was repeatedly attacked by the Progressive Conservatives in the North as taxing the North to build southern transit, the government asserts that the funds would be “fairly and transparently divided by population” so that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area would receive $15 billion and other regions of Ontario will receive nearly $14 billion.

There is also a commitment of $1 billion to develop strategic transportation infrastructure in the Ring of Fire and to “unlock the North’s economic growth and jobs potential.” Other than the impact of the population-based infrastructure funding and the investment in jobs programs, this was the element of the budget that offers the largest impact to the Northern Ontario economy.

The budget includes an investment of more than $11 billion in modernizing elementary and secondary schools over the next 10 years and more than $11.4 billion in major hospital expansion and redevelopment projects over the next 10 years.

The budget contains a focus on local and international partnerships, including global trade missions, to increase exports and attract new investments with a 10-year $2.5 billion Jobs and Prosperity Fund.

The province will create an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan “to help working families build a more secure retirement.” The Ontario Retirement Pension Plan will provide a predictable stream of income, indexed to inflation and paid for life in retirement; will be mandatory for the more than three million Ontarians without a workplace pension plan and will require fair and equal contributions from employees and employers; and it will operate at arms-length from government, with implementation led by former CEO of OMERS Michael Nobrega.

Also on the social service side, the budget will continue to reform the social assistance system, including improved income supports and reducing barriers to entering the workforce, proposing legislation to index the minimum wage to inflation. The budget also proposes to remove the Debt Retirement Charge cost from residential users’ electricity bills after December 31, 2015; enhance supports for adults with developmental disabilities and front-line workers in the community services sector; provide support for wage increases for homecare workers in the publicly-funded home and community care sector and front-line child care workers; and increase the Ontario Child Benefit by proposing to index it to inflation.

Despite all the new spending, the government claims it will eliminate the deficit by 2017-18. The government plans to accomplish this feat with the help of a new President of the Treasury Board, who will “champion transparency, efficiency and accountability across government.”

“We’re on a road like the Europeans and Greece were at one time where they ignored these warnings from the bankers and the credit raters and we can’t do that,” said interim Progressive Conservative leader Jim Wilson, as the official opposition continued to pan the budget.

The NDP were also not as enthusiastic as the Liberals about the budget, even though Budget 2014 was largely seen as containing many provisions designed to appeal to NDP voters.

“Reading this budget feels like Groundhog Day. The Liberals have introduced a Trojan Horse budget that sneaks in all sorts of nasty surprises for families,” said Andrea Horwath, leader of Ontario’s New Democrats in a release. “The Liberal budget leaves families falling behind. It opens new loopholes for CEOs and opens up Ontarians to the deepest cuts since Mike Harris.”