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Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty moved to shore up one of his campaign's perceived areas of weaknesses Thursday, promising that if elected his government will be the picture of fiscal responsibility.

Surrounded by caucus members during a morning stop in Toronto, Mr. McGuinty signed a pledge from the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to abide the Taxpayer Protection and Balanced Budget Act.

Passed by the Ontario legislature on Nov. 23, 1999, the taxpayer protection law prohibits the provincial government from raising most taxes and deferring scheduled tax cuts without first holding a province-wide referendum.

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"I will put hard-working families' tax dollars to work for them - in their public schools, hospitals and communities. I will not take more from them," Mr. McGuinty told reporters.

"We've had a financial plan out there for months; people know exactly what we're going to do, exactly how much we're going to spend, and where we're going to get the money."

The balanced budget law requires annual balanced budgets and drastic reductions in pay - 25 per cent in the first year of a deficit and 50 per cent in subsequent years of a deficit - for the premier and the cabinet should they run a budget deficit.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) Ontario director John Williamson has challenged the three main party leaders in the Ontario election to sign the pledge.

"This shows that Mr. McGuinty is serious about following the Taxpayer Protection and Balanced Budget Act," Mr. Williamson told globeandmail.com Thursday. "He's willing to put his signature on it and publicly stated that. It is great news from a taxpayer perspective."

Mr. Williamson said Progressive Conservative Party Leader Ernie Eves sent a pledge in to follow the act via fax late Wednesday night. The NDP has yet to respond to the challenge.

The tax issue is an area where the Tories have decided to attack Mr. McGuinty, with Mr. Eves repeatedly warning voters that a government under Mr. McGuinty would cost taxpayers $4.6-billion, or $1,100 per household.

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Mr. Eves is pledging nearly $5-billion of further tax cuts if re-elected, Mr. McGuinty says the province cannot afford them, and he is pledging to retain personal and corporate taxes more or less where they are.

The opposing parties have said the Eves government has made promises it cannot keep afford because it is running a deficit of up to $2-billion in the budget already.

"Politicians go back and forth and it becomes he said/she and there's no clarity," Mr. Williamson said. "This does crystallize it. Once he's in office, if he wants to raise taxes further he'll have to call a referendum. That's good news, because it gives voters the final say on any tax hike issue. It also gives them the final say in this election, because voters have a decision to make as to which plan they should support."

Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton, meanwhile, stepped up his attacks on Mr. Eves over the meat scare in Aylmer, after a Toronto newspaper report alleged that the Eves government was warned about tainted meat a year ago by the province's Agriculture Minister .

The Toronto Star obtained a confidential 2002 cabinet document showing that Agriculture Minister Helen Johns and her staff alerted Mr. Eves that the province's meat-inspection system posed a risk to public health.

"By doing nothing, he put lives at risk. He rolled the dice and, again, gambled with people's lives. That's not leadership," Mr. Hampton said at a stop in Toronto.

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The leaked document states that the "current meat inspection legislation and regulations are outdated." It also recommended an array of improvements, including full-time inspectors, national standards, food-handler training and provincial inspection of meat-processing plants now administered by municipalities, the Star reported.

The NDP and Liberals have promised a public inquiry following suspension of the licence of an Aylmer meat-packing plant at the centre of two investigations after it was shut down late last month and meat was seized because of alleged illegal processing.

Mr. Eves, campaigning in Stoney Creek in southern Ontario, denied his cabinet ever saw that version of the leaked memo, and called media reports about it "inaccurate and inflammatory."

"Let's go back to what the document is," Mr. Eves said. "It is not a warning. It is a pro-active process that we started in 1998."

It will be brought to cabinet in due course and it will be dealt with and it will be implemented and there is a process in place that will do this. Having said that, the food safety inspection system in this province is excellent and it will continue to be excellent and if we can make it better, than obviously we're going to do that."

The Eves campaign was also deflecting bribe allegations from a Green Party candidate in the old riding of former premier Mike Harris.

Todd Lucier said he was offered money by a "core part of the Mike Harris team" to help him take votes away from the Liberal candidate in the closely contested Nipissing riding.

The Tory campaign has denied it had anything to do with the offer.

With reports from Canadian Press

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