Ford government gets second chance to repair Ontario’s finances
Last week, Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative Party won a resounding victory in Ontario’s election, further increasing their majority in the provincial legislature. The Ford government will now have a second chance to deliver on its longstanding and repeated promises to balance Ontario’s budget and put the province on a path to fiscal sustainability.
In opposition during the McGuinty and Wynne years, the Progressive Conservatives were fiercely critical of their predecessors’ financial management, spending levels and debt accumulation. During its first winning campaign in 2018, a promise to balance the budget was a core commitment to Ontario voters.
Unfortunately, the Ford government did not make good on this promise during its first mandate. Inflation-adjusted per-person spending actually rose to higher levels than during the Wynne years (even after adjusting for COVID-related emergency spending) and large operating deficits and rapid debt accumulation have persisted.
And yet, the Ford government has remained rhetorically committed to balancing its books. In its pre-election budget, which essentially served as the party’s platform, the Ford government presented a timeline to balance the operating budget.
Unfortunately, the timeline’s pace of deficit reduction is lackadaisical, which combined with significantly increased capital spending, will contribute to a rapid run-up in debt in the years ahead. In fact, the province’s large operating deficits only account for about half of the debt growth projected over the next three years. According to budget forecasts, once capital spending is included, net debt will increase by $33.7 billion this year, $21.8 billion next year and $18.4 billion the following year.
This amounts to a $73.9 billion increase over the next three years, bringing the province’s net debt to $468.8 billion by 2024/25.
The later years of the government’s fiscal forecast show a slowdown in the rate of growth in government spending and finally the elimination of Ontario’s operating deficit over five years.
However, even these promises of mild future fiscal restraint should be viewed with some skepticism. The later years of the fiscal plan are sketchy on details and the government has not yet made clear how it will achieve the promised slowdown in government spending growth it claims will enable it to balance the budget down the road. When governments lack a record of spending discipline—or even a plan to achieve it in the near term—it’s prudent to take promises of future restraint with a grain of salt.
Having just won another majority government, it’s not too late for the Ford government to make good on its longstanding promise to repair Ontario’s finances. Doing so, however, will require a change of course from the approach to government spending and deficit reduction. In the months ahead, the government will re-introduce a modified version of this year’s budget. We’ll then know whether deficit reduction and slowing the pace of debt accumulation will finally become the high priority that Premier Ford has previously promised it would be.