Premier Kathleen Wynne has agreed to establish an independent budget watchdog, bowing to a key New Democrat budget demand.
She will also put her government’s plan for new taxes and tolls to pay for transit to a vote in the legislature. Such a move was requested by the NDP, but government sources insisted the Premier had planned to do so all along.
Ms. Wynne met with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath to offer her responses to her latest requests. On Friday, the Premier made her answers public, which is in itself a small concession to the NDP.
The Liberals have repeatedly said that they wanted to negotiate privately. But NDP sources said they have pushed Ms. Wynne to stake out her position publicly to avoid a repeat of last year, when a closed-door budget deal led to confusion over what had been agreed to.
With the Liberals holding only a minority of seats in the legislature and the Progressive Conservatives staunchly opposed to the budget, Ms. Wynne must secure Ms. Horwath’s support to ensure the fiscal plan passes and an election is averted.
To that end, the budget was loaded with NDP-friendly measures, including a cut to car insurance rates and youth job creation programs.
Ms. Horwath then made three more substantial demands. And this week, Ms. Wynne gave in on two of them.
The Premier has agreed to set up a new financial accountability officer, modeled on the federal parliamentary budget officer. This person, who is independent of government, has the power to investigate government spending and release reports on upcoming programs. The new job will be created via legislation in the fall, Ms. Wynne said.
The Liberals have also agreed to put their plan to add new toll lanes to Toronto-area expressways into a larger piece of legislation. These lanes, which would be used for free by carpoolers but which would allow solo drivers to bypass congestion for a fee, would raise money to build new subways, light rail lines and bus corridors.
The government announced the toll lanes in the budget, ahead of a report by provincial transit agency Metrolinx on measures to raise new revenue for transit.
The NDP insisted the plan be removed from the budget speech and instead presented with all the other revenue tools. The party also demanded the new measures be voted on in the House.
Government sources said Ms. Wynne has always intended to present the toll lanes proposal in a larger piece of legislation.
One source said the HOT lanes would remain a part of the budget speech, which must be voted on before June 3.
Ms. Wynne did not say what she would do about Ms. Horwath’s third request – to give the provincial ombudsman oversight of the health care system. Instead, she made a vague pledge to bring in “new accountability measures” in the health care system.
“I have indicated to the NDP that I would be making these commitments public. I hope to meet with Ms. Horwath again early next week so we can work together to pass the Budget before the house rises,” Ms. Wynne said in a statement.
Ms. Horwath responded positively.
“I am encouraged that Premier Wynne is willing to put in place some of the accountability measures that Ontarians want to see. Regardless of who is in power accountability measures protect all Ontarians. New Democrats have worked hard to ensure the provincial budget is fair, balanced and accountable,” she said in a statement.
The NDP Leader has scheduled a press conference Tuesday.