Ontario budget garners mixed reaction locally

Peggy Revell

The provincial government’s budget, complete with a projected deficit of $14.1 billion for 2009, is drawing cheers, jeers, and a lot of “wait and sees” across Rainy River District since being tabled last Thursday at Queen’s Park.
The budget contains good news so far for the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board, executive director Donna Dittaro said, starting with an increase in the Ontario Child Benefit from $600 to a maximum of $1,100 per child as of July.
“That’s awesome news for families in the district,” remarked Dittaro, though adding the DSSAB also would have liked to have seen money for child care.
“For us primarily, too, it’s all the housing announcements,” she noted.
The local DSSAB had funding under the Northern Home Repair Program for affordable housing, Dittaro explained, but despite lobbying the government to extend this funding, it ceased yesterday.
In this new budget, however, the Ontario government has pledged to work with the federal government and invest $1.2 billion over the next two years for the construction and retrofitting of affordable housing units.
“So we’re optimistic that maybe we’ll get another couple years of funding for that program,” said Dittaro. “It’s really helped a lot of people in the district and we know there’s more demand for it out there.
“It’s all good in terms of social housing repair and energy-efficient retrofit, and when they talk about it, because our housing is in desperate need of repair,” she noted. “When it gets old, it deteriorates.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time to get some support from the federal and provincial government to maintain our housing portfolio, so we’re really excited about that.”
One area the DSSAB’s housing providers do have concerns about is the province’s plan to blend the GST and PST together, and the resulting possible increase in costs, Dittaro said. But if they remain eligible for the same rebate, this change will be an okay thing.
Another part of the budget the DSSAB is “intrigued” about is the province’s plan to invest $3 million to establish “community hubs” in “low-income neighbourhoods” to “identify and provide social, community, and educational support.”
Dittaro said that type of hub sounds similar to projects the local DSSAB already has been establishing in the community, and so they will be keeping their eyes on it in case they might qualify for funding.
But as of yet, there’s no idea what these funding announcements will equate to locally, Dittaro cautioned. And until there are more details, much is still unknown.
“Particularly in a small area like this, if they base their funding allocation on a per capita basis, that’s not a good thing,” she said. “So I hope when they look, when they fund the north, that they look at the unique needs of the north and all the challenges that we face that they don’t face in southern Ontario.
“But we’re very optimistic that we’ll benefit from this budget.”
The Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce, meanwhile, has labelled last week’s budget as having “some good support for the north.”
NOACC, of which the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce is a member, commended the McGuinty government for proceeding with the expansion to widen Highway 11/17 east of Thunder Bay.
“Transportation infrastructure is critical to the success of business in Northern Ontario,” said NOACC president Barry Streib. “In addition to the widening of Highway 11/17 to Nipigon, this government has also committed resources to remote airports and the winter road network.
“This will connect us with our remote communities and strengthen the north,” he remarked.
Streib also praised the government for providing $40 million over three years for initiatives to support the modernization of the Mining Act, which the government plans to introduce this spring.
The budget also stated the government would extend the rebates of 1.8 per kilowatt-hour to qualifying mills.
“Although I was pleased with having this issue addressed and the rebates extended, we need to have a permanent competitive energy rate for our large industrial users,” said Mary Long-Irwin, NOACC’s chief operating officer.
“It is critical for the future of both forestry and mining,” she stressed. “Forestry, in particular, needs to know the future of the energy costs and it must be competitive.”
But Kenora-Rainy River MPP Howard Hampton is not so optimistic about the shape of the Ontario budget.
“There’s nothing in this budget that’s going to make a difference for the disaster we’ve seen in the forestry sector,” he charged. “They say they’re going to extend electricity rebate for paper mills, but we already know that that so-called rebate has had no positive effect, which is why we continue to see paper mills and pulp mills close.
“This budget reads like warmed-over George Bush,” Hampton added. “For eight years, George Bush told Americans that if he kept on cutting corporate taxes, and he kept on de-regulating, that it would lead to good times in America.
“As we all know now, that was a fairy tale that ended very badly.”
McGuinty’s budget, which outlines the cutting of corporate taxes, will have the same bad ending, Hampton warned, with the government placing more taxes on individuals to pay for these corporate tax cuts.
“The sad thing is, for modest and middle-income families, there are going to be some very big tax increases,” Hampton said about the province’s plan to merge the PST with the GST.
“Every time you go to the gas pumps, it will be eight percent more. Every time you have to fill up your fuel tank for your home heating, it will be eight percent more.
“If you want to go to Tim Hortons and have a coffee and a muffin, it will be eight percent more, on a whole range of items.”
This is on top of people already struggling, already having taken pay cuts, losing their jobs, and getting by on lower wages, Hampton noted.
Hampton would have liked to see a refundable manufacturing investment tax credit in the budget, which he said would help not only the forestry sector but all manufacturing in the province.
He also would have liked to have seen the implementation of a “reasonable industrial hydro rate” in the province, as well as a “Buy Ontario” policy for transportation projects within municipalities and regions.
“I would have liked to have seen, as well, a significant increase in the social assistance benefit. Because many people who have lost their jobs have also now exhausted their employment insurance and they’re having a very tough time making ends meet.”