Ontario government committed to increasing debt load for future generations

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, November 10, 2016

Another week, another report showing Ontario’s finances are in dire straits.

This time, the report was issued by the province’s Financial Accountability Office (FAO), which showed the province on track to rack up even more debt than previously expected.

The FAO estimates Ontario’s net debt burden (which adjusts for financial assets) will climb to $370 billion by 2020, up from around $315 billion this year. That’ll be about $28,000 per Ontarian.

The government came out in the wake of the report and defended its fiscal plan, noting that it projects a return to balanced operating budgets for the first time in nearly a decade next year.

It’s entirely possible the government will manage to balance its operating budget next year—although it may need to use one-time cash infusions from asset sales to keep this politically important promise.

For Ontarians though, it’s important not to buy the spin suggesting once the operating budget is balanced, our fiscal problems are solved.

The reality is even if the government finally collects enough revenue next year to cover its operations, the mountain of debt created by nine consecutive multi-billion dollar budget deficits won’t simply disappear. It’ll still be sitting there, accumulating interest, and it’ll need to be serviced by your tax dollars, which could otherwise be spent on other priorities.

The end of operating deficits wouldn’t even mean the government has stopped adding debt. Because of the way government accounting works, new debt acquired from capital spending (roads, bridges, etc.) doesn’t all appear on Ontario’s annual balance sheet.

So the province can technically have a “balanced budget” even while racking up new debt. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen, as Ontario’s debt load is expected to grow by about 17 per cent over the next few years.

Because the government has no plans to stop adding debt, forecasts show Ontario’s debt-to-GDP ratio (a measure that compares debt burden to the size of the overall economy) is set to hover near its current level of approximately 40 per cent.

For historical context, that’s considerably higher even than the 1990s, when debt soared under former premier Bob Rae.

The Liberals claim that returning to pre-recession debt levels (27 per cent of GDP) is an important goal. But the FAO notes, in an almost comedic understatement, that this will be “challenging” since the government has presented no plans on how to do it.

Despite the government’s bragging about a balanced budget next year, the reality is Ontario’s debt burden will remain at historically high levels and the government has no plan to bring it back into line.

In its 2009 budget, Ontario’s government forecasted it would balance its budget by 2015. It then failed to adequately restrain spending and so we are still running a multi-billion dollar deficit this year. Similarly, the government now says it will return the province to pre-recession debt levels, but again, according to the FAO, it’s not on track to achieve this goal either. And still, the government refuses to take meaningful action to reform and reduce provincial spending and begin to get our debt back under control.

The FAO’s recent report is just the most recent study that can be put atop a mountain of research showing Ontario’s fiscal plan will lead to more and more debt being passed along to future generations. What will it take for the government to finally get the message and change course? 

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