Ontario’s government has issued a fall economic statement that promises spending to hire and train more nurses and personal support workers and add long-term care beds, and commits to two highway projects while forecasting a $21.5-billion pandemic-fuelled deficit.
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy tabled the document in the legislature on Thursday with a speech that sounded in parts like a preview of next year’s election campaign. The Progressive Conservative minister accused his NDP and Liberal opponents of ignoring health care and long-term care and of courting “downtown activists” while blocking plans for suburban highways.
“This is the difference between a government that wants to get things done for everyday people versus an opposition who wants to block things from getting done on behalf of activists and special interests,” Mr. Bethlenfalvy said.
The document says the government will spend $342-million to hire and train thousands of nurses and personal support workers for the health care system, with $57.6-million beginning in 2022-23 to hire 225 nurse practitioners for long-term care homes. Over three years, Ontario says it will spend $548-million to improve home care for patients recovering from surgery.
And starting in 2024-25, the government says it will spend an additional $3.7-billion to create 10,000 more spaces in long-term care, and upgrade 12,000 existing ones as part of its goal to create 30,000 new spaces and upgrade 28,000, for which it has already committed $2.7-billion.
The Ontario Long Term Care Association, which represents 70 per cent of the province’s long-term care homes, called the new investments for the sector historic. Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said the hiring plan was a “good start” but called on the government to repeal its 1-per-cent cap for public-sector wage increases to retain nurses.
Meanwhile, the government’s bottom line, while still setting records for red ink, is improving. The deficit for 2020-21, projected to hit $21.5-billion, is much lower than the $33.1-billion predicted in the budget earlier this year – a reduction Mr. Bethlenfalvy said was made possible by better-than-expected economic growth. (It’s not the first underestimate in the fog of fighting COVID-19: Ontario said in September that its 2020-21 deficit came in at $16.4-billion, $22-billion less than predicted.)
While the update commits the government to the planning and design of the proposed Highway 413 west and north of Toronto, and the Bradford Bypass, also north of the city, it includes no details on the costs or how much would be spent even in the near term. Opponents warn the new highways would only fuel sprawl and eventually fill up with cars, worsening greenhouse-gas emissions. But Mr. Bethlenfalvy said on Thursday they would “get Ontario drivers out of gridlock” and reduce commute times.
Premier Doug Ford and his party have already signalled the projects will be key planks in his re-election campaign, even though Highway 413, with an estimated cost of at least $6-billion, is still subject to a federal environmental assessment. In the legislature, Mr. Bethlenfalvy also said new highways would not have tolls.
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the commitment to pricey highways does not add any money to the province’s capital plans. “Which communities are going to lose out while this government suddenly throws a couple of new highways that help their developer buddies onto the table?” she asked.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, part of the previous government that shelved the 413 in its last term, called it “a mirage” that would not help drivers. He said it would take at least 10 years to build at a cost of $10-billion. He also pointed to what he said was a $467-million cut to this year’s base education budget, now pegged at $30.8-billion for 2021-22 in the statement. He said it shortchanges children whose learning was disrupted in the pandemic.
The fall economic statement, a kind of mini-budget the government usually releases in November, includes already announced measures, including Mr. Ford’s pledge this week to raise the minimum wage to $15, effective Jan. 1, with annual increases tied to inflation.
The document also includes a pledge of $1-billion, with a demand for matching funds from Ottawa, for a road to the Ring of Fire mineral deposits in Northern Ontario. The previous Liberal provincial government also promised $1-billion toward a road in 2014, but it never secured federal money as local Indigenous leaders were divided over the idea. The fall economic statement says the government is also proposing changes to its Far North Act that would make it possible to build projects without the required land-use plans developed with First Nations.
Ontario also said it would double its funding to $20-million over three years to identify, investigate and commemorate residential school burial sites. The government said it would waive fees over three years to help families and communities obtain death registration searches or certificates for Indigenous children who attended one of Ontario’s 18 residential schools, and waive fees for survivors who wish to reclaim a traditional name.
Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the mini-budget’s pledges for long-term care and infrastructure, but he said he was disappointed in the lack of new money to help businesses devastated by the pandemic.
“We wish COVID was in the rear-view mirror,” Mr. Rossi said. “But that doesn’t make it so.”
Left out of the statement was a plan that had been under consideration by the government in recent weeks to restart assessments for property taxes put on hold during the pandemic. The Globe and Mail has reported the province was planning to tell the arm’s-length agency responsible for the assessments to delay their release until after the June provincial election. The government now says reassessments will be on hold until 2023.
Although Mr. Ford has repeatedly pledged to make permanent a $3 pandemic wage increase for personal support workers, the detail is absent from the mini-budget. The document also said negotiations continue on a $10-a-day child-care deal with Ottawa.
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