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Politics Ontario’s Wynne crafts NDP-friendly budget to counter spring vote

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks to supporters and her caucus during the party's annual general meeting in Toronto on March 22, 2014.

NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's Liberal government is planning a budget crafted to be hard for the NDP to defeat, including left-friendly measures such as better welfare benefits.

Despite Premier Kathleen Wynne's bullish posturing in recent weeks, government sources say the Liberals are wary of a spring vote – particularly after two by-election losses last month – and will design a budget New Democrats can support in order to prevent one. The spending plan will have no poison pills, the sources said.

The Grits have moved left in recent months, easing off the aggressive austerity that characterized Dalton McGuinty's final year as premier. Last fall, Finance Minister Charles Sousa said he is prepared to miss interim deficit reduction targets and will rely on economic growth to bring the budget to balance in four years. Now, the government is signalling, the deficit might even grow next year.

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On Monday, Ms. Wynne said she will not enter talks with the NDP as in previous years, but hinted she will put New Democrat-friendly measures in the budget.

"We are not going to be negotiating with either of the parties," she said after a photo-op at a Toronto bakery.

"We're listening to input from many, many different places, and there will be much in this budget that could be supported, quite frankly, by both [the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives]."

One New Democrat source said that, for the party to back the budget, the government would have to incorporate NDP ideas on things such as electricity costs and job creation.

In the past month, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has outlined several policies, including $100 rebates for hydro ratepayers and paying up to $5,000 to Ontario companies for each new worker they hire.

The source suggested New Democrats are wary of being seen as junior partners to the Liberals and need results on their specific demands. This would allow Ms. Horwath to claim victory.

NDP insiders at Queen's Park are privately optimistic about their party's electoral prospects, believing they could squeeze the Liberals out in many parts of the province – especially the southwest – and fight directly with the Tories.

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The Liberals have said the budget will contain job-creation measures, but the details remain vague.

The spending plan is also expected to strengthen services for people with developmental disabilities and improve welfare benefits.

"We'll make some significant moves on the developmental services side," Social Services Minister Ted McMeekin said in an interview on Monday. "I can't articulate those to you, of course, because it's part of the … budgeting process."

Mr. McMeekin said he is also looking for efficiencies in the administration of the welfare and disability systems to free up some cash to spend on services. Another project will see more housing for people with developmental disabilities, he said.

Mr. Sousa was tight-lipped about the budget on Monday.

He left the door open to a higher deficit next year than this, repeating only that he plans to return to balance in four years.

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"[The budget] is going to talk about some of the progression and some of the important work that's been done thus far to move us forward," he said. "I can tell you, we're going to be on track to balance the budget by 2017-18."

The austerity-obsessed PCs have already said they will vote the budget down, leaving the NDP the minority Grits' only option for passing a spending plan.

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