The Ford government promised it would deliver its budgets by the end of Ontario’s fiscal year, but an amendment quietly added onto its legislation to axe licence plate sticker fees will allow the government to miss the target without penalty, presenting the budget much closer to the provincial election.
The Tories introduced a law in 2019, requiring the delivery of budgets by a March 31 deadline. That target has been missed before and the government said it will be missing it again, because it wants more time to take get a clear picture of Ontario’s recovery following the March 1 reopening. The new deadline for the budget will be April 30.
Opposition members are accusing the PC’s of running out the clock on possible debate for their own benefit ahead of the June 2 election.
When the Fiscal Sustainability, Transparency and Accountability Act was first introduced, then-finance minister Vic Fedeli said Premier Ford was giving “an ironclad guarantee” to live up to the March 31 deadline. By law, if a government misses the target, a penalty of 10 per cent of the premier’s and finance minister’s salaries would be fined ($10,000 and $5,000). The minister of finance would also be required to explain why the deadline was missed.
Under the legislative change, the penalties won’t be required and spokespeople for Premier Ford and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said they won’t pay the fine in the spirit of the legislation because they aren’t required to.
“We want to make sure we present an accurate reflection of where we are at to the people of the province of Ontario as we come out of COVID restrictions,” said Government House Leader Paul Calandra.
But opposition members said on Wednesday the move to delay the budget had much more to do with helping the Tories’ re-election hopes.
“I say it’s balderdash,” said NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath. “All of these things are just for show. What would really show people something is if they had a government that put their needs first.”
Liberal House Leader John Fraser agreed and called the move entirely political, in an effort to stifle debate on the budget before the writ is drawn up.
“They created a law that you have to do it by March 31,” he said, “and they haven’t followed it.”
The leader of Ontario’s Green Party said he was more concerned about what the delay will mean for those who count on a timely budget.
“I think they’re going to upset municipalities, social service agencies, non-profits, and other community organizations who rely on government funding that now have to wait an additional month to understand what the provincial budget’s going to be,” said Mike Schreiner.
Political commentator Bob Ricardson from National Public Relations said he was much more sympathetic to the task ahead of finance ministers in the age of COVID-19. Richardson said he doesn’t think the delay of a few weeks will have too much of an impact, including on the election.
Read more: Ontario 2021 budget highlights
“I realize it’s in the run-up to an election, so there are both probably fiscal reasons to be doing this and there are political reasons to be doing this,” said Richardson. “But I don’t think 30 days’ delay in the budget is going to decide what the next political election is.”
This will be the second time the Ford government has missed its budget deadline, after the 2020 budget was delayed eight months until November due to the pandemic. Richardson warns that while the Tories will likely get a pass this time, the COVID excuse isn’t one they will be able to lean on for much longer.
“This probably still gets you a COVID pass,” said Richardson. “I wouldn’t want to try to doing this again next year.”