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Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak take part in the leaders debate in Toronto on Tuesday, June 3, 2014.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Over four days, The Globe editorial board will look at the options facing Ontarians. On Friday, June 6, we'll endorse one of those parties.

Canada's largest province, home to nearly 40 per cent of the country's population, goes to the polls on June 12. How to vote? In a perfect world, we'd be recommending that Ontarians mark their "X" next to candidates for the Liberal Progressive Conservative Party. Unfortunately, that party isn't on the ballot. Back here on planet Earth, voters are left with imperfect choices: a New Democratic Party that borrowed the most memorable parts of its platform from Rob Ford; a Progressive Conservative Party doing all it can to erase the "progressive" from its name; an incumbent Liberal Party simultaneously promising NDP social programs and a fiscally conservative budget. None of these is an ideal choice. And yet choose we must.

Over the next four days, this space will look at the options facing Ontarians. On Saturday, June 7, we'll endorse one of those parties.

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As the leaders met in their one and only province-wide debate on Tuesday night, polls were showing Tim Hudak's Conservatives and Kathleen Wynne's Liberals in a dead heat. In the coming days, we'll look at the parties' competing platforms. But first, consider the lie of the land: Ontario's government and finances.

The deficit: This year, Ontario expects a budget deficit of $12.5-billion. As a raw number, it sounds enormous. But it has to be put in context. Ontario has a budget problem, but it is not in crisis. It isn't Greece. The only figure that really matters is the debt-to-GDP ratio, the size of the province's accumulated deficits relative to the size of a nearly three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar economy. That ratio, though it is higher than it should be in the long run, is barely rising at current deficit levels. It must be brought down, and both leading parties are pledged to turn it around by eliminating the deficit quickly: the Conservatives in two years, the Liberals in three. There are, of course, questions about the plausibility of each of those plans, which we'll begin to dig into tomorrow.

Government spending: Ontario is the lowest spending province in Confederation. Queen's Park spends less per person on programs and services than any other province. Yes, really. Ontario also has the lowest per capita provincial revenues, thanks in part to a lighter tax burden than most provinces. Any discussion on reducing the size of government has to consider that context.

For example, health care is the biggest driver of provincial spending. Ontario's per capita health-care spending is the second lowest in the country, and spending restraint over the past few years has been tight enough that it is poised to fall below the current lowest spender, Quebec. If Ontario spent as much per person on health care as Alberta, Queen's Park would be spending an extra $14-billion a year.

There is waste in Ontario's budget. The incumbent Liberals proved that by making some remarkably bone-headed spending moves over the last decade. But in relative terms, Ontario's government is more efficient, or at least less inefficient, than others. That doesn't mean spending in many areas cannot be reduced. It can, and the Liberals and Conservatives are both committed to that, albeit to different degrees. But cuts will be more challenging than in other provinces, and more strongly felt.

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