Jones: Liberals “cooking the books” with latest budget

May 4, 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Pickford

While there was much furore at Queens Park last week when the Ontario government released its first balanced budget in almost a decade, Sylvia Jones has accused the Liberals of “cooking the books” and attempting to save face a year ahead of the eagerly anticipated 2018 provincial election.

Several other Progressive Conservative MPPs joined with the member for Dufferin-Caledon in branding the $141-billion 2017 provincial budget a campaign document for Premier Kathleen Wynne as she and the rest of the Liberal government scramble to improve their plummeting popularity ratings.

Increased investment in health care and education to the combined tune of $13.4 billion over the next three years, the introduction of a potentially revolutionary basic income project and the subsidization of prescription drugs for young Canadians wasn’t enough to save the Liberals from a scathing attack at the hands of PC Leader Patrick Brown, who has called the budget a “charade” and a “sham”. Those sentiments were shared by Ms. Jones, saying she is growing increasingly concerned with the province’s burgeoning debt.

“For me, the biggest concern I have with this budget is seeing just how much the provincial debt has increased since the Liberals came to office in 2003. I choose to believe that people understand that debt is a part of our reality, but to go from $139 billion to $312 billion in less than 15 years is, frankly, frightening,” Ms. Jones told the Citizen.

The MPP, who is also one of the party’s two deputy leaders, also questioned how the Liberals could claim to have a truly balanced budget this year with so many one-time sell-offs and other incidentals included.

“The government is hiding a more than $5 billion operational deficit through cash grabs, one-time revenue like the selloff of Hydro One, and unauthorized pension assets, which the independent Auditor General said the government cannot count towards their bottom line,” Ms. Jones said. “They’re talking about selling off some government lands, but that’s not something they can count on each and every year to save some money.”

She added, “To suggest that by carrying out (the previously mentioned transactions), that they have managed to balance the budget for 2017 is, frankly, a little disingenuous.”

And yet, Finance Minister Charles Sousa was a picture of confidence on Thursday as he declared, in Rocky-like fashion, that “we did it”, a direct reference to the Liberal’s 2014 promise that they would balance the budget before the end of its current term. He also committed to keeping things in the black again for the 2018-19 fiscal year, and again in the year after that if the Liberals are re-elected in 2018.

“The road to balance has not been easy. We had critical choices to make,” Mr. Sousa said. “We could do what some suggested: cut expenses, cut vital programs and services that people depended on to eliminate the deficit or take a more principled and thoughtful approach to make strategic investment and stimulate economic growth.”

The Liberals’ biggest criticism this term has surrounded their inability to curb hydro prices, but, as was announced back in March, the province has committed to cutting residential electricity rates by an average of 17 percent starting next month. That levy will be added to the eight percent reduction residents noticed in the harmonized sales tax on bills that kicked in at the turn of the new year.

“We recognize that families are struggling with the increased cost of living, so we’re doing more to help with everyday costs,” Mr. Sousa said.

Perhaps the highlight of this year’s budget is the introduction of OHIP+, a program that promises to fully cover the cost of prescription medications for all those aged 24 and under. With the province anticipating a New Year’s release, the free pharmacare initiative, which will cover 4,400 different drugs and medications, is expected to come in at a cost of $465 million per year.

Meanwhile, the innovative Basic Income Pilot has been well received by the majority, with some commending the Liberal government for attempting to come up with a plan to help low-income Ontario residents survive and thrive in an economy where everyday costs are growing. Four thousand residents from Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay will serve as the grateful guinea pigs for the project. Those selected will receive a Basic Income payment of $16,989 per year if they’re single, or $24,027 if they’re married. This trial payment will replace the standard social assistance individuals were already receiving.

Ms. Jones said she wanted to hear some feedback from that initiative before supporting or condemning it.

“I am concerned a bit that we are basically paying people not to be engaged in our economic system, but I don’t want to be too negative before I see some results,” Ms. Jones said.

Overall though Ms. Jones doesn’t believe there’s enough in the budget to merit the kind of support the Liberals have enjoyed in previous elections, once again reiterating her belief that this year’s budget is simply a method for Premier Wynne to buy back some of her long-lost supporters.

“This very much has the feel of a pre-election budget. I think the Premier is very concerned about her personal ratings and potentially being pushed out and so I think this was, to use a sports analogy, a Hail Mary attempt by her. She’s hoping she can bounce back from very low popularity ratings and get voters back onside.”

She concluded, “If I didn’t know when the next provincial election was I would suggest to you this is the type of budget you drop two months before an election. We can all see what they (the Liberals) are trying to do.”

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