Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy insists third-quarter financial numbers he released on Wednesday should put to rest the notion the province has been holding back billions in promised COVID-19 funds. But the government’s opposition critics remain unconvinced, pointing to $4.5-billion in rainy-day cash that remains unallocated.
The province’s financial update shows it projecting the same record $38.5-billion deficit for 2020-21 as predicted in its previous budget, released in November. Mr. Bethlenfalvy said Ontario has increased spending over the previous year by $25-billion to fight the virus.
And in just the months since that last budget, he said, the government has spent or allocated an additional $2.6-billion on its COVID-19 response – funding new hospital beds, providing protective equipment to long-term care homes and offering financial support for businesses left in the lurch by the Boxing Day shutdown. All of the federal money it has received for COVID-19 measures, the Ontario government says, has also been spent or allocated.
But Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has long faced criticism from opposition politicians that it has not spent enough on the pandemic. In December, the province’s independent Financial Accountability Office said the government still had $12-billion sitting unspent in its COVID-19 contingency funds as of Sept. 30.
That money was idle, critics said, at a time when Ontario faced lengthy lineups and delays in its testing system, had just vetoed smaller class sizes for its schools, and done too little to hire more health care workers and prepare long-term care homes for what has since become a devastating second wave. The government said in December that 80 per cent of the money had been allocated, if not spent – but critics have continued to accuse Ontario of sitting on billions in COVID-19 cash.
Mr. Bethlenfalvy said on Wednesday that all $13.3-billion the province put into special pandemic contingency funds last year has since been spent or allocated. Flowing that money through large contingency funds, he said, was meant to allow the government to spend it more quickly as needs arise.
“Some have criticized our plan. They’ve claimed that we haven’t spent the money,” Mr. Bethlenfalvy said. “These claims are simply incorrect. Thank goodness we were prepared.”
But the government still has $4-billion left in another contingency fund, after sliding $2-billion out of a $2.5-billion fiscal reserve in anticipation of potentially needing that cash to deal with COVID-19. (The fiscal reserve, a separate fund, is meant to provide wiggle room if the province’s revenue or spending projections are too optimistic. It still has another $500-million left.)
Mr. Bethlenfavly said there was a “pretty good” chance the government would end up spending all of that remaining $4-billion contingency on COVID-19 before the fiscal year ends in March. Any leftover funds would go toward reducing the deficit.
Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused the government of hoarding cash.
“Today, Doug Ford’s latest Finance Minister falsely claimed that Ontario’s government is no longer sitting on billions in unspent COVID-19 funds,” Mr. Del Duca said in a statement. “That simply isn’t true. Doug Ford continues to hoard billions of budgeted COVID response funds, while small-business owners suffer, nursing homes are in crisis, and class sizes remain unsafe.”
NDP finance critic Catherine Fife said the government could use the extra money immediately to offer paid sick days to workers, to ensure they can afford to self-isolate and do not infect their workplaces. She also said the money is needed now in long-term care and for efforts to trace the contacts of all confirmed cases.
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