Ontario government's fiscal update to focus on balancing the books

TORONTO – The fall economic statement will showcase the Ontario government’s efforts to balance the books, the Progressive Conservatives said Tuesday amid concerns about potential cuts to programs and services.

Government House Leader Paul Calandra said the key fiscal document, which will be released on Wednesday, will highlight ongoing work to eliminate a projected $10.3-billion deficit for 2019-2020.

He said the annual update will not signal a dramatic change of direction for the Progressive Conservative government but will include measures to bolster job growth and strengthen the economy.

“The overall approach is going to be the same,” Calandra said of the update. “Jobs and economic growth and a return to balance.”

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Last month, Finance Minister Rod Phillips said the government would reveal in the statement that it is on track to beat the projected deficit figure and tried to ease concerns the statement would include cuts similar to those in the 2018 fall update.

That document sparked outrage when the government announced the elimination of three independent watchdogs – the environmental commissioner, the child and youth advocate and the French-languages services commissioner. The duties of all three watchdogs were rolled into the offices of the auditor general and provincial ombudsman.

The government also announced that it would pull its financial support for a French-language university but has since reached an agreement with Ottawa to fund the post-secondary school.

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy would not comment on any potential cuts, instead stressing that it will have a good story to tell.

“I think the minister of finance will lay out the continuation of the path to sustainable finances in this province,” he said. “I think he’ll have a very positive message to communicate tomorrow.”

The Tories said last month that the province’s deficit in 2018-2019 came in at $7.4 billion – roughly half of the $15-billion shortfall they said they inherited from the previous Liberal government.

Opposition critics have said that figure was vastly inflated, and interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said Tuesday the government’s current, $10.3-billion target is also inflated to create a context for cuts.

“If there was only one thing you needed to know about last year’s fall economic statement, it’s that Doug Ford axed the independent child advocate and was somehow able to hire a thousand-dollar-a-day special adviser for alcohol,” Fraser said. “Last year was a year of dismantling and disruption and misplaced priorities.”

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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she’s not convinced the government will change its approach even after the controversy generated by cuts in its last fall economic statement.

“Tomorrow will be the big reveal in that regard,” she said. “We have seen this government devastate families … It’s an opportunity for them to change direction and actually start funding the programs that Ontarians should be able to rely on.”

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Tories should use this fiscal update to reverse course on cuts they’ve made over the past year.

“I’m hoping they’re going to be honest with us about where the deficit is,” he said. “They’ve clearly inflated the deficit to justify their cuts, which to me is politically motivated.”

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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