“ This is a plan that will not only create a more competitive economy, but also help build a fair society, with strong health care, and the tools to break the cycle of poverty and support people with disabilities.”
— Finance Minister Charles Sousa, 2015-16 Provincial Budget
If Finance Minister Charles Sousa is to be believed, it has been 130 years since Canada has seen such a commitment to improve infrastructure. Reiterating its commitment to invest $130 billion on various infrastructure projects over the next decade, the province is touting the 2015 Budget as the largest infrastructure investment in the history of the province.
Or, as Sousa effused in his Budget Speech, the largest investment in Canada since it completed what was perhaps the most vital project in building a new nation in the 19th century.
“This will be one of the largest infrastructure investments in Canada since the Last Spike was driven, completing the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885,”Sousa said.
It wasn’t the only time Sousa engaged in historic hyperbole, noting the pending reform that will allow beer to be sold in grocery stores “is the biggest change in alcohol distribution and sale since the Prohibition era.”
By drawing on the past, Sousa was adding emphasis to the Liberal government’s modernization agenda. But in so doing, the surprises were few.
Ironically — and in keeping with the trend of recent years — all of the major investments and initiatives planned by the government have been trickling out of Queen’s Park over the past few weeks.
If you are up to date with current events, you are well aware that the Union Pearson Express is set for its maiden public voyage in early June, shuttling travellers from Union Station in downtown Toronto to Pearson International Airport.
And that the province is investing in the next wave of Metrolinx’s Big Move projects, including a Light Rail Transit line through Mississauga and Brampton and rapid transit in Hamilton.
Also, the municipalities outside of Toronto can access funds to improve roadways that connect to provincial highways.
Or that, as mentioned above, the province is moving forward on recommendations from former banker Ed Clark to revolutionize the way beer is sold in Ontario and sell off shares in Hydro One.
All of it is old news, and all of it was front and centre as Sousa tabled the province’s 2015-2016 spending plan.
Interestingly, despite it being the first time in five years the Liberals have presented a Budget that isn’t an election Budget (accepting that the Budget introduced last July was a repeat performance of the May Budget that triggered the spring election) and that the Liberals are comfortably ensconced in power until 2018, there was little that was overly controversial. The first year of a majority mandate is usually the time to get the nasty business out of the way — and hopefully out of voters minds by the time the next election rolls around.
But what is clear is the Kathleen Wynne government sees improved transportation — whether by car, on a bus or aboard a train — as the way to voters’ hearts. The average daily commute around Toronto is more than an hour and is steadily increasing. Sousa estimates this costs the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area more than $11 billion annually in lost productivity.
“Right now, the biggest barrier to jobs and growth in our province is —ironically — a byproduct of our own success,”Sousa said, later adding: “Right now, gridlock is choking our growth potential.”
Even the title of this year’s Budget, Building Ontario Up, speaks to the government’s top priority in the second year of its majority mandate.
Despite this wave of cash towards infrastructure — much of it coming from the government’s Trillium Trust of funds from specified asset sales — the province is on track to meet its election commitment to balance the budget by 2017-2018.
An $8.5 billion deficit is forecast for this year, falling to $4.8 billion next year before balancing out on schedule.
But the responsibility for meeting that target falls not so much on Sousa, but on the shoulders of Treasury Board President Deb Matthews — whose shadow loomed large over Thursday’s Budget.
The government has increased its target for the sale of provincial assets by $2.9 billion, hoping to raise $5.7 billion this year. Growth in provincial program spending has been kept under 1.5 per cent and every provincial program and service is under review. With the exception of health, apprenticeship and education, social services and justice, every program expense is expected to decrease by an average of 5.5 per cent each year.
This includes the government’s ongoing commitment to cap public sector salaries.
“We are holding the line on public sector compensation and there’s no new funding for compensation increases,”Sousa said, no doubt stinging the Durham Region high school teachers currently on strike, and those in six other public school boards prepared to walk out.
2015-2016 BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS
·The 2015-2016 deficit is projected at $8.5 billion, on revenues of $124.4 billion and expenses of $131.9 billion.
·Projecting increased revenues and limited growth in expenses, the 2016-2017 deficit is projected at $4.8 billion, with the budget balanced by 2017-2018.
·The Ontario economy is poised to grow by 2.7 per cent in 2015.
·Program spending is expected to be lower than forecast for the sixth year in a row.
·The province is continuing with the second year of its commitment to invest $130 billion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.
·Planned investments of $11.9 billion this year, including highway improvements in Northern Ontario, bus rapid transit lanes in York and Mississauga, LRT in Waterloo and rapid transit in Hamilton.
·Add $2.6 billion to its Moving Ontario Forward plan, boosting the fund to $31.5 billion over 10 years. This includes $16 billion for projects in the GTHA and $15 billion for projects in other areas of the province.
·The opening of the first phase of the Highway 407 East extension, and the announced second phase that will see the tolled highway connect to Highway 35/115 heading to Peterborough by 2020.
·Enhance train service on all GO Transit corridors by adding up to 24 weekday rail trips, running trains every 15 minutes in core areas and implementing two-way, all-day service on weekdays, evenings and weekends in core areas.
·Electrifying the Barrie, Stouffville and Lakeshore East GO Train corridors.
·Ongoing work for the next phase of the Big Move, including Bus Rapid Transit between Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville and Burlington, Durham-Scarborough bus rapid transit, the Toronto Relief Line and Yonge North Subway extension.
·Launching the Union Pearson Express this spring.
BEER, WINE & SPIRITS
·Authorizing up to 450 grocery stores to sell beer.
·Reducing red tape and increasing market access for Ontario craft brewers.
·“Fundamentally”revise the Beer Framework with The Beer Store.
·Increase the province’s revenue from all beer sold in Ontario to $100 million through the implementation of a three-cents per litre charge, starting in November and increasing by three cents each year until 2018.
·Proceed with an Initial Public Offering of 15 per cent of the shares of Hydro One, with additional shares sales in subsequent years.
·Consolidate local hydro distribution companies, starting with a merger of Hydro One Brampton and three other local hydro companies.
·Requesting the Ontario Energy Board consider opportunities to enhance natural gas access in remote communities.
·LHINs across Ontario will receive $138 million over three years to improve community mental health and addictions programs.
·$11 billion in capital grants will be provided over the next decade to ensure adequate capacity in Ontario hospitals.
·Annual five per cent increases in funding for home care, investing more than $750 million over the next three years.
·Considering allowing Ontarians to receive travel vaccines at local pharmacies.
·Establish a $20 million Health Technology Innovation Fund.
·$40 million over four years for rehabilitative services for seniors.
·Aone per cent increase in social assistance rates, the third year in a row recipients of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program received a hike in rates.
·Extending the federal-provincial Investment in Affordable Housing by five years with an investment of $80 million annually.
·Reaffirmed the “It’s Never Okay”program to end the root causes of sexual violence.
JOBS & BUSINESS
·Employment is up by more than 500,000 since the global recession hit in 2009.
·Renewing the Ontario Youth Jobs Strategy with an additional $250 million over two years.
·Investing $55 million to enhance in-class apprenticeship training and support programs.
·Putting an additional $200 million into the Jobs and Prosperity Fund and making the forestry sector eligible for benefits.
·Extending the Northern Industrial Electricity Rate Program with ongoing annual investments of $120 million to reduce energy costs of large industries in the North.
·Provide an additional $5 million for the Postsecondary Education Fund For Aboriginal Learners.
·Committing $11 billion to school boards over 10 years to build new schools and improve old ones.
·Modernizing the Ontario Student Assistance Program by increasing the loan limit and indexing future increases to inflation and capping the student limit at $7,400 for the 2015-2016 school year.