Ontario budget stakes COVID recovery on tax relief for business

But opposition NDP leader Andrea Horwath says the Ford government's plan amounts to "waving a white flag" on the COVID crisis


Finance minister Rod Phillips delivered the Ontario government’s budget in the Legislature Thursday afternoon. And not surprisingly, COVID-19 dominated the province’s economic outlook and plans for the rest of 2020 and into 2021.

The budget promises more money for long-term care and frontline health care workers. Some $2.8 billion has been earmarked for a “Fall Preparedness Plan for Health, Long-Term Care and Education” to deal with the second wave of the pandemic. But the opposition NDP says that it amounts to “waving a white flag” on the COVID crisis.

The document repeats the government’s recent commitment to increase the average daily direct care for residents in long-term care to four hours a day. It also continues the theme Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been pushing throughout the pandemic – that the government will have the backs of Ontarians.

But it’s businesses that are the primary focus of financial support.

The Ford government is pledging some $300 million to support businesses that have been closed or seen reduced business because of COVID restrictions.

The government is also pledging to cut “job-killing” electricity costs of businesses by some 14 per cent, which will cost $1.3 billion over three years.

Small businesses are also getting a break on property taxes while commercial property owners will see a cut in Business Education Taxes. The latter was a recommendation of the Ontario Real Estate Association.

The budget offers a nod to issues of domestic violence and anti-Black racism that have emerged during the pandemic. The government plans to spend $60 million over three years starting in 2020-21 on a Black Youth Action Plan and $2.5 million for supports for victims of domestic violence.

But there was also a fair bit of politicking in the budget document, with Phillips blaming the “mess” left by the previous Liberal government for the need to keep an eye on spending.  That “mess” is a few billion dollars less than the PCs have been claiming. The budget predicts a deficit of $38.5 million this year. That number is projected to go down to $28.8 billion by 2022-23.

Among the other highlights:

• The Ford government is committing $100 million over two years for “community tourism, cultural and sports organizations;”

• One-time emergency funding of $25 million for arts institutions;

•  An investment of $680 million over the next four years to bringing broadband internet to smaller Ontario communities, a measure which was leaked earlier this week;

• A $380 million fund to help parents allay the costs of online learning in the form of one-time payments of $200 for families with children up to 12 and $250 for youth;

According to the government, as of September, employment reached 95.8 per cent of the pre-COVID February 2020 level.

But NDP leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement issued while the budget was being read that the Ford government measures don’t go far enough to help frontline workers in health care or to reducing class sizes. According to the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ford government’s expenditures for education and child care have represented only 1.3 per cent of Ontario’s response to COVID-19 to date.

Horwath notes that before the COVID crisis hit, the Ford government’s first budget “included cutting thousands of teachers and education workers, cutting supports for children with autism, and making cuts to long-term care. Those cuts and others were not reversed in this budget.”

The opposition NDP has been calling for “immediate funding relief for the hospital sector” as well as the hiring of some 10,000 Personal Support Workers for long-term care and public health staff to bolster COVID testing and contact tracing to fight the pandemic. Phillips says rapid testing for COVID will be available soon in Ontario.

But according to the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario, the Ford government has underspent by some $6.7 billion funds provided by the federal government under the Health Sector Response Fund to bolster the province’s response to the COVID crisis.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) warned this week of a “pandemic deficit” in health care.

In a statement released yesterday, OMA president Samantha Hill cites a study published by the OMA this week which reports a backlog of 148,364 surgeries in Ontario created at the height of the COVID crisis between March and June.  A report prepared for the Canadian Medical Association also estimates that bringing wait times back to pre-pandemic levels over the next year would require a 20-per-cent increase in funding.

It’s a similar story in the area of mental health says the Canadian Mental Health Association, where some $217 million of the $15.2 billion committed by the government to health care has gone to mental health support.

CMHA CEO Camille Quenneville says in a statement that the Ford government has yet to make good on its 2018 election promise to invest $3.8 billion over 10 years in mental health while the pandemic exacts a huge toll in greater rates of anxiety, stress, depression and addiction.

@enzodimatteo

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