As the dust settles after the Progressive Conservatives’ first budget, the extent of the spending cuts is sinking in.
From urban university think tanks and rural tree-planting programs being chopped to the final chapter for library book-sharing programs, the real impact of Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s spending plan is beginning to be felt two weeks after it was unveiled.
But the haphazard nature of the cuts — compounded by Premier Doug Ford’s public statements about the fiscal blueprint — makes it difficult to determine the government’s budget strategy.
Ford boasted this week that “our budget was pretty Liberal, to say the least” because it spends a record $163.4 billion, some $4.9 billion more than his Grit predecessor, Kathleen Wynne, budgeted last year.
“We caught everyone off-guard. We got everyone flat-footed. Was it a super-staunch Conservative budget? No it wasn’t,” he told Global News’ Alan Carter on AM 640 on Monday.
The Progressive Conservatives, who plan to run deficits past the 2022 election, have increased overall spending as a result of accounting changes and a decision to transfer billions in consumer electricity subsidies from the ratepayers’ base to taxpayers.
At the same time, the Tories are forgoing about $1.9 billion in annual revenue with the cancellation of the previous Liberal government’s cap-and-trade environmental alliance with Quebec and California.
While those revenues were earmarked for green programs, such as electric vehicle subsidies and home retrofits, the cut has contributed to a cash crunch for the government, which is reducing the budgets of 13 ministries.
The premier emphasized his government had to find “efficiencies in a reasonable and responsible way” in order to “to put additional money into health and education.”
Yet the most publicized spending reductions so far have been in those areas.
Queen’s Park is slashing its share of public health funding with municipalities from 75 per cent to 50 per cent, and eliminating thousands of teachers’ positions across the province.
Among the other cuts:
- The government quietly acted upon a recommendation from auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, who last December expressed concern about OHIP coverage for Ontarians when they travel abroad. To that end, the province will drop its already limited coverage of health care costs for travellers, meaning Ontarians will have to rely solely on private insurance while overseas.
- Funding was eliminated for public policy think tanks such as the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre, which conducted research on Ontario’s role in Canada and the world, and the Martin Prosperity Institute, launched under former Tory premier Mike Harris 18 years ago. The institute’s planned June reports on tax reform and the costs of mental health have been scrapped.
- Forests Ontario’s “50 million tree” program, which aimed to plant that many trees by 2025, was sent to the woodchopper, leaving nurseries with almost seven million unplanted saplings. The conservation program, which has helped 4,000 landowners in rural Ontario by subsidizing the planting of 2.3 million trees annually, is being eliminated in July.
- Legal aid is being hit with a 30 per cent reduction, a move some charge is penny-wise but pound foolish. A Canadian Bar Association report on access to justice found that for every $1 of legal aid spending, there is $6 saved in social service and justice costs. “Cuts to legal aid are a false economy,” said Katharina Janczaruk, vice-president of the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers. “The cuts will inevitably lead to other expenditures or pressures on Ontario in the future.”
- The government is boosting class sizes, starting in Grade 4, which will lead to at least 3,475 teaching positions lost. School boards are already sending pink slips to hundreds of teachers in anticipation of the changes. In Fedeli’s own Nipissing riding, the Near North District School Board has sent notices to more than half of its 240 high school teachers. At one North Bay-area school, 24 of 32 teachers were told they are on the chopping block.
- Another high-profile victim of the budget is libraries. Southern and northern library services are losing half of their provincial funding, forcing them to suspend inter-library loans as they scramble to cope. The Ontario Library Service—North was reimbursing libraries for Canada Post costs to share materials between municipalities, and “that has been eliminated,” said CEO Mellissa D’Onofrio-Jones.
- Grants for the Ontario Music Fund are dropping by more than half, from $15 million to $7 million. “Doug Ford has hit another bad note on the culture file, this time ripping away opportunities from everyone from aspiring artists to the domestic music companies that nurture their budding talent,” said New Democrat MPP Jill Andrew (Toronto—St. Paul’s), noting past fund recipients have included A Tribe Called Red Inc. and Arkells Music Inc.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie