Ontario to deliver its second pandemic budget on March 24

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario is set to deliver a budget later this month that the finance minister promises will have no tax hikes or spending cuts as the province focuses on fighting the pandemic.

Peter Bethlenfalvy said Thursday that the 2021-2022 budget will be tabled March 24 and will feature funding measures to "defeat" COVID-19 and ensure all residents are vaccinated against the virus.

"Our recovery will be built on a strong foundation for growth," he said. "Not painful tax hikes or cuts. Tomorrow will be brighter and our province will be stronger."

Ontario delivered its last spending package in November after delaying its planned March 2020 release because of the pandemic. That budget had record spending of $187 billion, and a record deficit of $38.5 billion.

Bethlenfalvy was coy about whether or not the upcoming budget will include a path to balance, but stressed the government may need to continue spending to address COVID-19.

"Stay tuned for the budget, which is now 13 days away," he said. "These deficits, which are necessary in this environment, are not sustainable in the long term. So I do believe it's important to give people clarity on the sustainability of the finances."

The budget date was announced as Ontario's fiscal watchdog released a report on the province's spending in the third quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman said the province moved $7.1 billion of previously unallocated spending into programs.

Opposition leaders and health-care advocates have criticized the government for months about multibillion-dollars reserve funds they said the province should be spending immediately on the pandemic.

Weltman said the funding was largely used to increase spending in hospitals and long-term care homes by $4.5 billion.

The report also noted the province provided additional funding to transit agency Metrolinx and spent money to help businesses with tax relief and hydro rate support.

"It's a heck of a lot of money," Weltman said of the third quarter spending. "We put the report out to provide transparency on what the government has been spending its money on."

Weltman said that Ontario continued to have three unallocated funds with a total balance of $4.7 billion as of Dec. 31, 2020.

If that money is not spent it would be put towards deficit reduction.

"I think the (third quarter) spending shows us that they were able to basically allocate $7.1 billion in one quarter," he said. "It's hard to gauge what will be left over ... this is not a normal year."

Bethlenfalvy promised that the government is not holding back any pandemic funding.

"I wish I was sitting on a pile of cash," he said. "On those numbers, I would say we are spending the money."

Weltman added that Ontario must present a path to balance in this budget by law.

"They do need to indicate how long they intend to be in deficit and when they expect to achieve balance and how they expect to get there," he said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government needs to use the budget to invest in paid sick days for workers, more care for nursing home residents and to bolster the vaccine rollout.

But she said she is doubtful any of that will happen.

"I have a healthy sense of skepticism because we know what the Ford government is all about," she said. "They were cutting before the pandemic."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press