TORONTO – Ontario’s Liberal government presented its last budget before the June provincial election on Wednesday, a fiscal plan that pours billions of dollars into health care, child care and other programs while putting the province back in the red. Here are five key things about the budget:
DEBT AND DEFICIT: The government is going back on its promise to balance the books for another year, and instead projects a deficit of $6.7 billion in 2018-2019. The province won’t be back in the black until 2024-25 – beyond even the next election should the Liberals form another majority in June – according to government projections. Ontario’s net debt, meanwhile, is projected to be $325 billion this year, up from $308.2 billion expected for 2017-18. Interest on debt is expected to be the fourth biggest expenditure, after health care, education, and children’s and social services.
POLITICAL LANDSCAPE: The $158.5 billion budget comes as the Liberals, who’ve been in power for 15 years, face an uphill battle for re-election. The party has been lagging in the polls, dogged among other things by its decision to sell off shares of Hydro One and concerns about the rising cost of electricity. In the week leading up to the budget, the Liberals made several major spending promises, which the opposition has denounced as a ploy for votes.
DENTAL CARE: The budget contains a few new programs that had not yet been announced, including one that would provide drug coverage and dental care to those who don’t have other health coverage starting in the summer of next year. The program would cost $800 million in its first two years and reimburse up to 80 per cent of eligible prescription drug and dental expenses, up to $400 for singles and $600 for couples, with an additional $50 for each child. The Liberal initiative comes as the NDP has also pledged, if they were to form government, to provide dental coverage for students, seniors and people working jobs without dental benefits by 2020.
HEALTH CARE: The health-care sector is getting a major boost, with a promised $2.1 billion going to mental health services over four years and $822 million earmarked for hospital funding. The country’s largest pediatric hospital, Toronto’s SickKids hospital, will also receive $2.4 billion for its 10-year plan to rebuild its aging facility. The Liberals also say they will create 30,000 new long-term care beds over the next decade.
SENIORS: The government promises to invest $1 billion over three years, starting in 2019-2020, to give households led by a senior 75 or older up to $750 to help cover the costs of maintaining a home. Seniors will also no longer have to pay deductibles or copayments to get prescription drugs under the Liberals’ expanded OHIP+ program, which would take effect in August 2019. The program is expected to save the average senior $240 a year and cost the province $575 million annually by the time it is fully operational.