Pembroke – The massive Ontario budget, which projects more than $187 billion in expenditures, including $30 billion in pandemic spending, is bringing with it lots of good news for area residents, according to Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski.
The Ontario government unveiled its new budget last Thursday and with it came Ontario’s biggest ever deficit at $38.5 billion. Dealing with COVID-19 made the budget more challenging, the local MPP, who also serves as Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, said, adding the province had to respond to the pandemic.
“Without COVID the budget deficit would not be the case,” he said. “It is our responsibility as a government to face COVID.”
For a government voted in on a promise to end the heady Liberal spending ways of the previous governments, this is not the budget most anticipated when the Conservatives were voted in.
“This is not something we are enjoying,” he said. “We are fiscal conservatives. Our DNA says we should try to look toward balancing budgets.”
However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and the provincial Conservative government has responded, he said.
“We are not looking to balance the budget next year,” he admitted. “We are giving employers help to continue to maintain and create jobs.”
It is no secret the provincial government has been hit had by COVID-19 both in terms of spending and planning for recovery, but Minister Yakabuski said the budget provides for pandemic support now and is looking at pandemic support in upcoming years as well.
“It is a three-part plan to protect, support and recover,” he explained. “We want to create the conditions for our economy to rebound.”
In protecting Ontarians with a COVID-19 response plan and supporting people and jobs, the government is also creating conditions for a recovery post-pandemic, he explained.
“It is a forward-looking budget, and it is balanced,” he told the Leader on Monday. “We have to look forward to the future and planning.”
Some areas of particular interest for rural residents include the commitment for an additional $680 million over the next four years to expand rural broadband access. This means nearly $1 billion over six years for broadband expansion. Minister Yakabuski said he knows this is particularly important in a rural place like the Ottawa Valley
“We have made historic investments to increase cellular coverage and broadband,” he said. “This will have a great impact on Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke.”
The program is expected to increase broadband access for 220,000 homes and businesses across Ontario. Broadband has been a major plank for the Ontario government and COVID-19 has shown how important adequate broadband is.
“So many of our meetings are virtual,” he said. “We know businesses rely on it, as well as homes.”
In his own ministry, forestry is also being helped by the budget. Minister Yakabuski said the Endangered Species Act has been a challenge for rural residents since it was brought in in 2006. While exemptions have been granted for forestry, now this has been made permanent with these forestry regulations falling under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act.
“It gives protection to wildlife, trees, flora and fauna that is recognized as being necessary, but also allows industry to reach its potential,” he said.
This comes after many years of people asking for forestry to be moved out of the Endangered Species Act, he said.
“Forestry operators have been asking for this for years and we are providing this permanent change in the budget,” he said.
Highway 417 Expansion
One item which Minister Yakabuski has worked extremely hard on for many years is the expansion of 417 into the Ottawa Valley and although this is not mentioned in the budget, the commitment is still there, he promised.
“The Highway 417 expansion has been confirmed,” he promised. “We are starting with the intersection at Calabogie Road for safety.”
This plan to expand Highway 417 over the next 10 years will continue despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, he said.
“The timespan has not changed since I announced the expansion in the summer of 2019,” he said.
In looking at the budget there is much for area residents including $6 billion spending in health care.
“In Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke we have a high population of seniors,” he pointed out. “We want to keep them healthy and living at home.”
The province promised $2.5 billion for hospitals to help fight the pandemic. At the same time there is a new tax credit to help seniors live in their homes longer. It will reimburse them for 25 per cent of eligible renovations costing up to $10,000, regardless of their income and whether they owe taxes for 2021. The minimum credit is $2,500 and could be sued for things like installing wheelchair ramps, non-slip flooring and additional light fixtures.
There is also a commitment for four hours of care for long-term care residents.
“The Liberal government made that commitment in 2007, but never followed through,” he added.
Now, with the Conservative government bringing this in it means many thousands of new PSWs across the province.
“It takes a lot to implement,” he said, adding there has also been a commitment for new long-term care beds and more renovated beds. But all this does not happen overnight. You have to plan and create.”
Parents are also receiving help with the added costs of virtual schooling. Parents will receive $200 per child under 12 and $250 per child or youth with special needs.
“This is huge for parents with school age children,” Minister Yakabuski said.
The government is also doing its part to encourage Ontario tourism by working on a tax credit of up to 20 per cent of expenses for visiting destinations in Ontario.
“We know how tourism has been affected,” he said. “We are bringing in an Ontario tourism rebate for an Ontario staycation. We want people to consider vacationing in Ontario. This is a big part of our economy.”
Minister Yakabuski said the budget is a large one and there is a deficit, but it has a plan for dealing with COVID-19 and planning for a post-pandemic recovery.
“It is an appropriate budget for the times we are living in,” he said.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader