TORONTO — Roughly $150 billion of Ontario taxpayers’ money is in the hands of Premier Doug Ford and residents will get their first glimpse at exactly what that means on Thursday.
Ford’s finance minister, Vic Fedeli, will table the Progressive Conservatives’ first budget in the legislature at 4 p.m. Some of the government’s key election promises — like a childcare rebate for parents and a dental program for low-income seniors — will be outlined in the document, unnamed sources have told journalists in recent days.
The government teased one tidbit for sports fans on Monday. It plans to change Ontario’s liquor laws to allow drinking at tailgating parties near game venues.
Here are three other things to watch for.
1. Deficit and path to a balanced budget
Ford ran for election on a promise he would eliminate the province’s yearly shortfall, currently pegged at about $12 billion, without cutting any public service jobs.
He’s already backtracked on the second part, but Thursday’s budget should show how quickly he plans to cut the deficit. Under the law, when an Ontario government runs a deficit, it’s required to forecast when spending will get back to balance.
Debt ballooned under the previous government. Ontario now spends more every year just servicing the interest on its debt ($12.5 billion) than it does on the justice system ($5 billion).
Ford says the Liberals spent money “like drunken sailors” and promises that his government will find billions of dollars worth of savings by making government more efficient.
The minister of finance has cut landlines in his office to save money. And the health minister says she’ll get rid of fax machines across the health-care system. But experts say much bigger changes will be necessary if the premier intends to make good on his promise.
2. Spending cuts
The PCs tabled their first big economic update in November, scrapping billions of dollars in spending planned by the Liberals for universal child care, domestic violence shelters and a drug and dental rebate for people without insurance. They also eliminated three independent officers of the legislature who were tasked with protecting vulnerable children, the environment and French-language services, and cancelled plans for a francophone university.
Since then, the government has unveiled a plan to transform the health-care system by merging agencies into one “super agency” and said it intends to increase class sizes at public schools and require high school students to take some credits online.
These could be hints of the kinds of changes this government will make to save money.
Thousands of Ontarians have protested the government’s changes to the education system at events planned by high school students and teachers’ unions.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario says the changes would cut 4,500 teaching positions every year for the next four years. Minister of Education Lisa Thompson insists changes will be made through attrition, or not filling jobs as teachers quit or retire, rather than through layoffs.
She told reporters that the changes to classrooms would affect less than one per cent of her ministry’s $29-billion budget this year, but didn’t say how much the government intends to save in the long term. The budget on Thursday could reveal if the PCs have more major changes in store for education funding.
Watch Premier Doug Ford answer questions about full-day kindergarten.
Teachers’ unions have promised to fight Thompson tooth and nail over the changes.
There could also be changes coming for kindergarteners. Currently, Ontario has full-day kindergarten classes with both a teacher and an early childhood educator present. In consultations with unions and school trustees, the government has been asking whether that’s good “value for money.”