The Ontario Liberals are planning at least $5.7-billion of new spending in this spring’s budget, a blueprint for both the infrastructure and social policy legacy Premier Kathleen Wynne wants to leave as well as a platform for a possible election.
The budget plans were revealed in a leak to the opposition Progressive Conservatives, and had the effect of turning attention away from a document-destruction scandal haunting the governing party Tuesday by placing the spotlight on Ms. Wynne’s ambitious spending agenda.
The sprawling budget is expected to contain everything from a long-awaited transit-funding plan to a new provincial retirement savings system, along with a grab-bag of other big-ticket items: a $2.5-billion fund to help businesses set up shop, $2-billion to repair the province’s schools, a light-rail line in Hamilton, at least two new highways and more than $1-billion for various social services. The government is also looking to lower monthly electricity bills by killing the debt-retirement charge for residential customers and offering breaks to industrial hydro users.
The Liberals would not discuss any of the leaked details directly, but Finance Minister Charles Sousa acknowledged the scope the spending document will have.
“This is going to be a tremendous budget indeed,” he said. “It’s about investing in those initiatives and infrastructure that enables Ontario and, for that matter, Canada to be competitive.”
The details are laid out in an 11-page budget rollout schedule, which lists a different item to be announced nearly every day in April, leading up to the budget itself on May 1. The PCs said the Grits were making non-political mandarins organize the budget announcements on the schedule. Some angry members of the “budget-leaking team” gave the rollout plan to the PCs, the party said.
Although the PCs spoiled the government’s plans by releasing the schedule, they also helped the Liberals at least temporarily change the channel from a criminal investigation into the alleged deletion of documents in former premier Dalton McGuinty’s office, a scandal that has buffeted the government for days.
The Tories, however, tried to turn the budget against the government, arguing it is nothing more than a bid to buy votes that the deficit-saddled treasury cannot afford.
“It’s a campaign budget with spending like it’s pixie dust,” Tory finance critic Vic Fedeli said in an interview.
Some NDP-friendly items in the plan, however, suggest the government is hoping to avoid an election altogether by winning the support of the left-wing party. Lowering hydro bills would fulfill a long-standing New Democrat demand. The Hamilton LRT, meanwhile, would run right through NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s riding – a major piece of transit infrastructure she might find it hard to vote against.
Ms. Horwath declined to say which way she would vote.
“We’ll make a decision when that opportunity arises, when the budget has been tabled in this legislature,” she said.
The budget rollout appears to be structured to get the bad news out of the way early: One item says Mr. Sousa will reveal the projected deficit for the next fiscal year on Thursday. That leaves the rest of the month to pile spending promise on spending promise until the budget.
Among the many items are $730-million for services for people with developmental disabilities, $300-million for unspecified “front-line workers” who work with vulnerable people, $31-million for a student nutrition program, $85-million for in vitro fertilization treatments, indexing the Ontario Child Benefit to inflation starting in 2015 and better GO train service. Sysco may receive a $3.5-million grant over five years for a food distribution and processing centre in Woodstock, while a company identified only as “Osprey” is said to be making an investment in the province, the document says.
Money to build a road to the Ring of Fire mineral deposit in Northern Ontario is also listed, as is an announcement on a new expressway from Kitchener to Guelph, to be built by 2021.