TORONTO – Sales of Crown assets to pay for billions of dollars in new transit and infrastructure projects will be a key focus of today’s Ontario budget, also expected to include details on a new provincial pension plan.
The Liberals last week released two key elements of the budget by announcing plans to sell 60 per cent of Hydro One and to impose a new tax on beer to raise $100 million annually while allowing 350 grocery stores to sell beer.
Premier Kathleen Wynne left the door open to tax hikes when asked Wednesday about the budget, which she said would expand on last year’s plan to spend $130 billion over 10 years on transit, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Wynne said there are obviously other things in the budget that the government has not yet announced, but she declined to offer any details.
Both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats warn Ontario’s already high electricity rates will “go through the roof” if the government sells a majority stake in Hydro One, the giant transmission utility.
The Tories question the Liberal government’s ability to cut spending and keep its commitment to eliminate a $10.9 billion budget deficit by 2017-18.
PC finance critic Vic Fedeli says the Liberals actually increased the deficit in each of the last two years, after Wynne took over from Dalton McGuinty, and more than doubled Ontario’s debt to $287 billion in just 11 years.
“Ontario’s debt continues to grow faster than the province’s economy,” he said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is worried the budget will include cuts to health care that will force hospitals to lay off more nurses. She also expects to see reductions in education funding.
“People are losing their jobs,” said Horwath. “A number of communities are seeing losses in full-time and part-time positions in hospitals. Health-care workers, nurses in particular, talk about the ‘epic stress’ that they’re experiencing in hospitals.”
Horwath said the Liberals made no mention of selling Crown corporations like Hydro One during last year’s election, accusing Wynne of implementing the campaign platform that the Progressive Conservatives ran on.
The budget will have more on the $130 billion, 10-year infrastructure plan announced last year, and detail how the sale of Hydro One will free up $4 billion that will be dedicated to transit and infrastructure, not the deficit, said Wynne.
“The building of infrastructure, transportation infrastructure like transit, roads and bridges — that’s the cornerstone of our economic plan,” she said.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce wants the budget to focus on eliminating the deficit, reducing the debt, cutting red tape and to “mitigate” the impact of the new provincial pension plan on businesses.
“We are worried that the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan will slow job creation and deter investment in Ontario at a time when the province’s economic recovery is not guaranteed,” the business lobby said in advance of the budget.
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