Getting onto a path towards financial stability has been the province’s focus this budget season, with a promise of eliminating the now $11 billion deficit for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
The PCs are doing so without introducing any new taxes for residents or businesses in Ontario but there are notable cuts to almost all of the province’s ministries.
Local MPP Greg Rickford said while several cuts were made, they slashed areas where Ontarians will feel the least effect.
“Sometimes you just have to make cuts, that’s how you balance budgets,” he remarked.
“The previous government over the course of their entire mandate spent $40 million a day more than they took in,” added Rickford.
Due to what the Rickford calls “excessive spending” the province is currently over a third of a trillion dollars in debt which is the largest sub national debt of any developed country.
“Pick a province or pick a state out of any country that you know of in the western world and we have the highest debt,” he charged.
“So our ability to put a pathway to balancing the budget in five years, without compromising the programs and services that matter the most to Ontario, I think is the [budget’s] most striking feature,” noted Rickford.
Rickford said it included good new for northern Ontario’s forestry sector.
“Minister Yakabuski will be completing his forestry roundtable and we intend as part of the budget roll out over the course of the next fiscal year to announce expanded wood rights–access to wood in all of the forests across Ontario,” he said.
“We hope that we will come out with a sustainable plan for our forest but we’ve heard loud and clear from all stakeholders that access to a greater amount of fiber is a key issue,” added Rickford.
A targeted program for broadband in northwestern Ontarians, was another important budget highlight, according to Rickford.
“What we are targeting . . . is all of those communities and places along the highways where things just all of the sudden go dead or don’t exist,” he said.
“We want to zero in with the private sector on these specific dead spots or areas . . . and bring them up to the kinds of standards that people in the rest of the province take for granted,” added Rickford.
Rickford said in particular, the program will look to provide cell service in areas along the highway between Fort Frances and Thunder Bay that are currently dead zones.
He also lauded the Ontario Childcare Tax Credit which offers families with low to moderate incomes up to $6,000 per child under the age of seven and up to $3,750 for children who are age seven to 16.
Rickford added that now parents can recover money spent on childcare in the form that is best suited for their needs, whether it’s summer camp, babysitting, or daycare.
The province is also promising to invest $1 billion over the next five years to create 30,000 new child-care spaces.
Another highlight from the budget is aimed at the two thirds of seniors who don’t have dental coverage in Ontario.
Starting later this summer, dental care will be covered for individual seniors making less than $19,300 a year or couples who are making less than $32,300.
“This is often the cause of more serious illnesses and ailments and it also contributes to ultimately our emergency rooms being occupied with things that we could otherwise prevent,” Rickford noted.
When looking at the budget, healthcare was one of the only areas that saw a funding increase, which totalled $1.2 billion.
But NDP official opposition deputy leader John Vanthof argues that the funding was kept below the rate of inflation, which will have a negative impact on a patient’s level of care.
Rickford said that the funding will come through savings created by the overhaul of the province’s healthcare system that will remove the Local Integration Health Networks (LIHNs) and eliminate overhead costs.
Little information has yet been released on the implications around implementing the super agency over the next few years.
Meanwhile, funding for public education did see an increase of about $800 million but changes to the system have recently sparked controversy among Ontarians.
“No one I have talked to anywhere in the province has ever complained to me or ever mentioned to me that they want less teachers in the classroom,” said Vanthof.
“If you think about it having less teachers is not going to increase the educational experience or provide for a better education,” he added.
Vanthof said if the province goes through with raising class sizes from 22 students to 28 per teacher, schools will close down in smaller communities throughout rural and northern Ontario.
He also raised concerns around there being less specialized programs such as shop classes, music, and art because they generally have a lower class size threshold.
Rickford lauded his government’s investment in education and said that a shift in funding will go towards creating higher quality curriculums for students.
“Eighty-five percent of our education money that we spend goes to teacher’s salaries and we think that more money needs to go into the educations side of that equation,” Rickford noted.
He said that even with the increases, the province will still be offering one of the lowest class size averages in Canada.
Meanwhile, one of minister Rickford’s three portfolios–Northern Development and Mines–saw a cut of $215 million in the 2019 budget.
“We found efficiencies within how northern development and mines does its business,” he said.
“We’re not going to comprise in any way shape or form the integrity and safety of the kind of regulatory work northern development and mines does but we are going to make it more efficient,” Rickford pledged.
As the minister of indigenous affairs, he also noted that there is good news for First Nations across the province.
While the budget was trimmed by 8 percent percent he said this was done without making any cuts to its program.
“One of the reasons we were able to bring that down is because we followed up on initiatives to increase resources, for example in child and youth services, education, and health that dealt squarely with indigenous communities,” Rickford explained.
“What looks like . . . a bit of a trim from indigenous affairs actually amounted to increases in key areas,” he added.
Some of those increases include the dental access program for indigenous communities through the ministry of health, a revised First Nations curriculum that will now be offered in grades 9-12, and an investment in the indigenous graduation, and family well being programs.
“The funding in this budget will also transform some of the key aspects of how indigenous people experience the justice system, hopefully to reduce the amount of incarceration and return them back to their communities in a better place,” Rickford noted.
When looking at the numbers, indigenous affairs budget is down from $81 million to $74.4 million this year, which Vanthof said will have a negative impact on overall relations.
“Despite what minister Rickford says . . . cutting indigenous affairs basically by half without any true consultation with indigenous people on where or why, shows that this government in our opinion, isn’t really serious about reconciliation,” he charged.
Meanwhile, this year’s budget also saw nearly a quarter of the funding for ministry of agriculture slashed, totalling a cut of $225 million.
In question period yesterday, Vanthof asked the minister of agriculture where the 20 percent cut will be made and said he couldn’t get a specific answer.
He’s now concerned that much needed services farmers use like crop insurance and risk management plans could potentially be effected.
“Those people are dedicated and they know their job, and yet now they’re facing a 20 percent cut,” Vanthof remarked.
“I think that not only hurts agriculture but that hurts the population in general,” he added.
The PCs also cut of $142 million to emergency firefighting which has raised concerns as 839 of the 1,325 forest fires in the province were in Northwestern Ontario.
Vanthof said it looks like the government is trying to keep their deficit numbers down with the cut, but will likely have to pull funding from their general revenue if there are a similar number of forest fires this year.
He said last year was one of the worst years for forest fires in a long time, and with the advent of climate change it would have been responsible to keep at least keep the funding the same.
Meanwhile, Rickford is pleased with his government’s budget and said the important message was “protecting what matters” in Ontario.
He said the current plan in place will get the government on track to a financially sustainable future.