Ford government to unveil second budget on March 25, Ontario finance minister says

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The Ford government will unveil Ontario’s 2020 budget on March 25, Finance Minister Rod Phillips says, after a year that saw the Progressive Conservatives (PC) change course on several aspects of their 2019 fiscal plan.

“Restoring our financial health will mean that we can continue to make the investments in vital services, and we can return Ontario to a strong financial footing,” Phillips said during a Wednesday morning event in Kleinburg, Ont. He also reiterated the provincial government’s plan to balance the books by 2023.

That particular deadline was revealed in the last budget, representing a change from the PC’s campaign promise to balance the books within a single term. At Phillips’ announcement, he pointed to the government’s fall economic statement, noting that it demonstrated they were on track to reach the amended goal — exceeding their own $10.3 billion forecast for deficit reduction and winding up at a figure of $9 billion.

A report from the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO), which was released on Wednesday, forecast a budget deficit of $6.1 billion if actual-to-planned spending continues for 2019-20.

READ MORE: Commons committee’s top ask for budget is for feds to advance sustainable finance

At the time of the PCs fall economic update, the province was on track to spend $341 million more in the year than they had planned for in last spring’s budget, in part due to walked-back plans to cut municipal funding for childcare and public health units. The government planned to draw $551 million from their contingency funds this year to offset $1.3 billion in newly-allocated spending, which included an additional $278.5 million for the autism program, earmarked after their initial plan elicited backlash.

But according to third-quarter finances released in January, the government was on track to spend approximately $2.5 billion more than projected in the 2019 budget; the increase is largely attributable to the province’s electricity cost relief program. The $2.5 billion figure forecast is consistent with data from the FAO, released on Wednesday morning, which found that the PCs had increased their spending plan by a net $2.5 billion, but that actual spending in the first three quarters of 2019-20 was $2 billion lower than planned. Every sector spent less than planned, the FAO found, with the exception of education.

The PC’s first budget came under fire from opposition parties — who criticized the Ford government for its loosening of rules and regulations around alcohol and gambling in Ontario, and claimed that programs wouldn’t see increases in spending that kept pace with inflation and the province’s aging population. The budget also revealed details about the PC’s new license plates, which have caused turmoil at Queen’s Park in recent weeks due to concerns that they were unreadable in certain lighting conditions. A new plate is now being developed, and the government has maintained that the manufacturer will bear the costs.

Phillips did not stickhandle the last fiscal plan; he was shuffled into the finance portfolio after the budget was announced, in a June shakeup that saw predecessor Vic Fedeli demoted. Speaking to reporters recently outside of a cabinet meeting, Phillips touted his government’s 2020 pre-budget consultations.

“We heard about, really, three things. We heard about people’s concerns about affordability. We heard very much about people wanting to make sure we’re investing in services — which, of course, we’ve done this year, but the budget will do again next year — and we heard, as well, about the importance of balancing the budget,” he said.

READ MORE: Ford government breaks campaign pledge, will balance budget in five years

Asked what assurances he could offer to those concerned about cuts to services looming in Ontario, Phillips vouched for a “balanced approach” to fiscal planning that factored in the provincial debt, and said any differences from the last budget would be gauged by the press.

“I guess you will be the judges of that, not me, when the budget comes out. But I think we’ve listened very closely to what Ontarians are saying. We do know what those priorities are,” Phillips told reporters. “I think you’ll see a balanced document that helps build the province and, you know, makes a clear, clear indication of what this government is about.”

The federal government’s 2020 budget is also expected this spring. While federal finance minister Bill Morneau has yet to announce a date, precedent submits that the national fiscal plan will be tabled on a Tuesday of a parliamentary sitting week — rendering March 24 and 31 the earliest likely dates.

READ MORE: Commons committee’s top ask for budget is for feds to advance sustainable finance

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