Thursday, the Ontario Liberal government released their 2017 budget and it was full of fun tidbits for families and seniors. Free prescription medicine for people under the age of 25, more child care spaces, and a discount on hydro bills — all seem to be a bit of a big giveaway considering this is a “balanced budget”.
The balanced budget, while claiming to be the first in a decade, still has an outstanding total debt of $332.4 billion. The Liberals are entrusting a lot of their financial success on the economy, or rather the fact that the GDP has increased over the last year. If the GDP drops on the next two years, and if the government doesn’t come up with new forms of revenue, there is little hope that a balanced budget will be maintained.
It was pretty obvious what the government was trying to do. This close to an election period, the Ontario Liberals are trying to woe back their core. The party has been doing poorly in the polls, and support for Premier Kathleen Wynne has plummeted. This budget was their last attempt to prove they are helping Ontario residents.
While there were some good things in the budget (it would be foolish to claim it was all bad), I have some big criticisms. The first is the new OHIP Plus. I love that it includes birth control, as most benefit plans don’t and it is a large expense for women. The program, which offers free prescription medications for children and young adults ages 24 and under, is the first of its kind in Canada. It’s an impressive program, but surprisingly the price tag was left out of the 294-page budget. The cost is about $465 million per year if you were wondering.
I also want to bring up the fact that OHIP Plus, while a good first step, doesn’t help a lot of people that desperately need health benefits. For example, most children are covered under their parent’s work plans, and when they go to university, they are offered decently priced and extensive coverage as part of their tuition. It’s the people 24-30 that need a plan like OHIP Plus — people who are stuck unemployed or working contract positions with no benefits and no money to purchase a private plan of their own.
It’s also important to note the New Democratic Party came out with a universal pharmacare program weeks before the budget was released that would have offered all Ontario residents certain free prescription medications. At time of publication, it’s unknown whether birth control would have been included in that plan.
While seniors received a public transit tax credit and low-income students received free tuition, there was one area in particular where the government was lacking support — transportation and infrastructure.
Toronto, in particular, was given just enough to appease the Mayor. The city got its short-term accommodation levy, but there was no extra money to be found to help fund transit projects or social housing. The province is instead touting past commitments to public infrastructure, including $190 billion over 13 years. This year, the province is only dedicating $56 billion to pre-existing projects or projects that are near completion. This includes GO RER, the Eglinton Crosstown, Hamilton Rapid Transit, and the Mississauga Transitway.
There was nothing but a small mention of “support” for the downtown relief line, despite Mayor John Tory’s insistence that the province contribute 40 per cent of the cost of the project.
The province also didn’t allot a lot of money for social housing, choosing instead to support retrofits on pre-existing affordable units. There is $2 billion earmarked for housing in the 2017 budget, but it’s meant to be spent in the next three years on a mixture of affordable housing projects, social housing, and anti-homelessness measures. There was no dedicated money for Toronto Community Housing, which is on its way to close 400 units over the next year.
All of this is a serious blow to Toronto, which is trying to grow in a sustainable way.
“Earlier this year, after the province refused to allow the City of Toronto the ability to raise funds for its own infrastructure priorities and ease the pressures our residents face, I made my expectations clear,” Tory said in a statement released after the budget.
“But the clarity that Toronto requires for its pressing social housing and transit needs has not been delivered today. The provincial government appears to have missed an opportunity to partner in the historic investments made by the federal government in much needed future transit expansion and repairs to our vital social housing.”
It’s clear the province isn’t looking to make friends with municipalities in this budget. Instead, the Ontario Liberals are going directly to the voters and pleading for their support, throwing out phrases like “balanced budget”, “promises” and “we can’t put a price tag on our children.”
Will this strategy work? What do you think?
To see more about the 2017 budget, go here.