Ontario government can’t blame fiscal woes on ‘slow’ economy

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, June 17, 2024
Ontario government can’t blame fiscal woes on ‘slow’ economy

Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy recently defended the Ford government’s 2024/25 budget, claiming that critics are “wrong” and blaming the government’s budget deficit on a slow economy. But it’s the minister that’s wrong. This year’s budget is full of shortcomings and the blame lays squarely at the feet of the Ford government.

For the 2024/25 fiscal year alone, the budget projects a $6.1 billion increase in annual program spending (total spending minus debt charges), a $9.8 billion budget deficit (a far cry from the $200 million budget surplus for 2024/25 the Ford government projected last year), and a total increase in provincial debt (measured as total debt minus financial assets) of $24.2 billion. The debt increase far exceeds the deficit because Ontario separates “operating” expenses from its spending on bridges, roads, schools and other “capital” projects. The budget is also notable for what it does not contain—namely, the long promised personal income tax relief for Ontarians.

This approach to fiscal policy—high spending growth, persistent deficits, significant debt accumulation, no meaningful tax relief—has been a hallmark of the self-styled “fiscally responsible” Ford government. Time has proven again and again that the Ford government’s rhetoric does not match its policies, and Minister Bethlenfalvy’s comments are simply the most recent example of this phenomenon.

Again, according to Minister Bethlenfalvy, the government will run a deficit this year “because the economy is slow” and revenues are lower than expected. It’s true that expected revenues declined from last year’s projections, but the government also introduced billions in new spending.

In other words, the government is not merely a victim of “global forces” pushing revenues down and spending higher. Instead, the Ford government is driving deficits through its unwillingness to restrain spending, and Ontarians will bear the burden of this spending through higher taxes.

The finance minister also reiterated that the government is “committed to a path to balance” the budget. And this year’s budget does indeed project a $500 million surplus in 2026/27. But Ontarians should view this with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Last year the Ford government committed to surpluses of $200 million in 2024/25 and $4.5 billion in 2025/26, yet quickly abandoned these commitments in favour of deficits of $9.8 billion and $4.6 billion. Why then should Ontarians believe the government will actually balance the budget in 2026/27 when it so recently abandoned its commitment to balance the budget this year?

Finally, the finance minister claimed that Ontario is the “only major jurisdiction that has a path to balance”—pointing to Quebec, British Columbia and the federal government as jurisdictions that have no current plan to balance the budget. While it’s true none of those jurisdictions have a plan to balance the budget, the minister conveniently left Alberta out of the equation.

Alberta projects a $367 million surplus in 2024/25, followed by surpluses of $1.4 billion in 2025/26 and $2.6 billion in 2026/27. Clearly, Ontario is not the only major jurisdiction with a plan to balance its budget.

Moreover, the poor fiscal situations in B.C., Quebec and Ottawa do not excuse the Ford government’s mismanagement of Ontario’s finances. Similar to how a child cannot shirk responsibility for misbehaving simply because their friends also misbehave, the Ford government cannot use other jurisdictions to downplay the dismal state of its own finances.

This year’s Ontario budget once again underscores the Ford government’s unwillingness to limit spending growth and provide meaningful tax relief for Ontarians. And despite the finance minister’s attempts to make excuses and downplay the situation, the government’s fiscal plan deserves the criticism it has received.

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