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McGuinty admits health tax will haunt him

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty conceded yesterday that his government's controversial health tax will continue to dog the Liberals as he unofficially kicked off the election campaign by adjourning the legislature 3½ weeks early.

Opposition members have labelled Mr. McGuinty a promise breaker for introducing the health tax after pledging during the 2003 election campaign not to raise taxes.

"I know it's an issue," he told reporters. "It will always remain an issue for us."

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The Premier took the rare step yesterday of inviting reporters and television cameras into the Liberals' caucus room, where he defiantly defended the decision to impose the health tax. He said his government had to clean up the mess left behind by the previous Progressive Conservative government, including a $5.5-billion deficit. The health tax adds $2.6-billion a year to the province's general revenue coffers.

"I hated making that decision. ... But we were desperately short of money and the system was under desperate pressure," he told 57 members of the Liberal caucus who greeted him with cries of "four more years."

In return, he said, his government has delivered better health care and education to Ontarians.

Mr. McGuinty said he adjourned the legislature's spring session early because his government has completed its agenda, with the passage of 14 new pieces of legislation.

"We're not leaving a single bill on the order paper," he said.

But opposition members criticized the Premier for ending the session one day before committee hearings were set to begin into grants given to groups with ties to the Liberal Party.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Mike Colle was to appear before the standing committee on estimates today.

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With the legislature shutting down, Mr. Colle will no longer have to answer for the "slush fund" he has been running out of his ministry, said Progressive Conservative House Leader Bob Runciman. "It's clear that that's the real reason Dalton McGuinty is running out the door."

New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton said the McGuinty government decided to "cut and run" because it is "desperate" to avoid having Mr. Colle answer questions about the grants handed out by his ministry.

The alleged multimillion-dollar slush fund dominated much of Question Period during the spring session. In response to pressure from the opposition, Mr. McGuinty asked the provincial Auditor-General to conduct a special investigation last month into the grants handed out without any formal application process and totalling $32.4-million over the past two fiscal years.

The legislature won't be back in session until some time after the provincial election on Oct. 10.

With recent polls showing the Liberals and Tories in a neck-and-neck race, all parties have stepped up their campaign efforts in recent days.

"Trust is going to play a very big role in this election," Mr. Hampton told reporters.

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