Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa has unveiled the Liberal government’s last budget before the spring election. Here are the highlights:
After a year of balanced books, the Liberals are projecting a deficit of $6.7 billion for the coming fiscal year.
The shortfall is largely due to big-ticket spending promises from the Liberals aimed at “making everyday life more affordable” for Ontarians.
The Liberals project shrinking deficits over the medium term, with a plan to balance the books again by 2024-25.
That assumes they’d be able to form a government not only in this year’s election on June 7, but in the next vote as well.
New drug and dental plan
Many of the big promises included in the budget were announced ahead of time, but one major program unveiled Wednesday promises drug and dental support to those who don’t have other health coverage.
The Ontario Drug and Dental Program will reimburse up to 80 per cent of eligible expenses for those without other coverage.
The plan will cover $400 per person, $600 per couple and $700 for a family of four.
The program takes effect in summer 2019, and will cost the province roughly $800 million over its first two years.
Support for seniors
The budget contains several perks for seniors, including a new benefit for those living at home and full prescription drug coverage.
Under the Seniors’ Healthy Home Program, those age 75 and over will receive up to $750 a year to offset home maintenance and other costs.
The new plan will cost over $1 billion over three years, starting in 2019-2020.
The province is also expanding its OHIP+ program, which currently serves those under 25, to make prescription drugs free for people over age 65 and over at a cost of about $1 billion over three years.
Big spending on childcare
Parents with young children stand to save in the future, with the province promising to make preschool free for kids aged two-and-a-half and up.
The Liberals say the program, which takes effect in 2020, would save the average family with one child $17,000.
It’s expected to cost roughly $2.2 billion over three years.
The government also plans to add 100,000 new child-care spaces, and provide before- and after-school programs in most elementary schools.
Boost for hospitals, mental health
The province is spending big on health care, with roughly $19 billion earmarked over the next decade for hospital construction and renovation.
That includes $2.4 billion for redevelopment of Toronto’s SickKids hospital, and a $1.8 billion project at the Ottawa Hospital.
The government is also pledging to provide “better and faster” mental health service through more than $2 billion in new funding over four years.
The money will increase access to free psychotherapy, provide high schools with mental health supports and create a new fund to support LGBTQ and other under-served communities.
Support for Indigenous people
The Liberals are promising to continue what they call a “commitment to reconciliation,” with several budget measures to support Indigenous people.
The biggest pledge is aimed at improving on-reserve child care, with the government promising $40 million over three years in new operating funding.
It’s also committing $290 million over six years in an effort to double child-care capacity on-reserve.
Other measures include targeted funding for mental-health care and $1 million to help provide healthy food to remote communities.
Ramp up to cannabis profits
The government predicts it will take some time for the province’s legal cannabis regime to start turning a profit.
With the federal government planning to legalize recreational po
t this year, Ontario will set up a Crown corporation to handle distribution.
The Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation, a subsidiary of the LCBO, is projected to lose $40 million in its first full year of operation.
But by the 2020-21 fiscal year, it’s expected to bring in a net income of $100 million.
Tobacco tax continues to climb
Smokers will pay about two cents more per cigarette starting March 29, as the province tries to get more people to kick the habit.
Continuing a plan announced in last year’s budget, the price of a carton of smokes will go up by $4 per carton.
That follows a $2 per carton bump in 2017, with another $4 increase coming in 2019.
The province hopes to achieve the lowest smoking rate in the country, and reduce the estimated 16,000 deaths attributed to smoking each year.
Northern development gets a boost
The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, which supports job creation across northern Ontario, is getting a boost from the provincial budget, to the tune of $85 million over three years.
The new money will bring the corporation’s total budget to $150 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year.
The government says the aim is to create jobs and foster “productivity and innovation in the north.”
The Liberals are also pledging to support the forestry industry in the face of uncertainty over U.S. trade policy on softwood lumber.
Opposition leaders react
Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath don’t agree on much, but they found common ground in what they both call the “good news” in the latest Liberal budget.
In separate speeches Wednesday afternoon, the Progressive Conservative and NDP leaders promised it would be Kathleen Wynne’s last budget as premier.
Ford accused Wynne of making big promises with taxpayer money, while pledging that a Tory government would find enough efficiencies to balance the books.
Horwath said the Liberal government leaves too many people behind, falling short of her goals of universal pharmacare and dental coverage.