There cannot be a finance minister in the country who would want to trade places with Charles Sousa, Ontario's finance chief. The province's deficit isn't a crisis, but it is a problem. A projected $12.5-billion shortfall in 2014-15 is growing rather than shrinking. The Liberal government is planning to fund a number of new and needed long-term programs, but finding the money to do so is challenging. So there are compromises: new spending promises, but little new overall spending, with total government spending projected to barely grow over the coming years. There's an ambitious agenda on public transit, but no new revenue tools to pay for it. Buried in the budget, there's a tax increase for those earning over $150,000. The deficit rises this year, but the government nevertheless remains committed to returning to balance by 2017-18.
Thursday's budget feels like a series of compromises that eventually won't add up. The province is going to have to make more painful spending cuts, or find new revenues – you know, taxes – or get saved by stronger-than-expected global and particularly American economic growth in the years to come, which would boost Ontario's economy and coffers without the Finance Minister having to do anything at all. Absent that last eventuality, a future government – and an election could be triggered in the coming days – will have to make hard choices.
One of the budget's signature items is the proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. It's a second-best option for improving future retirement incomes, but the blame for not choosing the best option falls on the Harper government in Ottawa, which refuses to agree to expand the Canada Pension Plan. Ontario's Liberals deserve credit for trying to address a real, long-term issue.
Less good? A new "jobs and prosperity fund", worth $2.5-billion over 10 years. It's basically a basket of subsidies to business. The Liberal government is more hopefully trying to figure out how to lower electricity costs, which its policies over the last few years mistakenly jacked up. But the latest steps in the budget look like subsidies to lower electricity prices, not reforms to lower costs.
This is an election budget, or as much of one as a minority government in tight financial straits can muster. The issues it raises, and the alternatives offered by the opposition Progressive Conservatives, deserve real debate. An election wouldn't be a bad thing.