By PAT WATSON
After all the shenanigans we have been witness to in the past weeks regarding public transit construction, members of Toronto City Council must have breathed a sigh of relief with the minority Liberal government’s latest budget earlier this week.
Given that the provincial government has to structure a budget that pays down a ballooning deficit and publicly-held debt of more than $250-billion, it is a relief that the city was not targeted for transit funding cuts.
It is also a relief that provincial cost saving did not include any downloading to municipalities as was done during the Mike Harris era in the early 1990s. The cost saving measures implemented by the Conservative’s Harris resulted with, among other things, the amalgamated Toronto that still hasn’t figured out how to find balance. That was also when the subsidized housing and public transit portfolios were downloaded to the city.
So whatever pain Ontarians will experience in the coming years, according to what finance minister, Dwight Duncan, laid out earlier this week, and there is some pain for everyone from seniors to families with young children, at least Toronto City Council won’t be directly dragged into it.
Where the pain will be felt, as the Liberals try to pull $17.7 billion out of the budget, will be in the education and public service sectors. Duncan has indicated that wage freezes will be coming. Some schools will also be closed, students will not be allowed to extend their high school studies into a full fifth year and wages for education employees will be held down for two years. At the same time, full-day kindergarten by 2014 is still on track.
So we can expect protests from the powerful teachers’ unions, as well as physicians, whose wages will increase at a lower rate. Expect protests, too, from other sectors since, for example, prisons in Chatham and Goderich will close.
To make all of this bearable, Duncan indicated that many of the planned cuts are at least two, and in some cases three years away. There will be no direct tax hikes, but there will be fee increases such as the hike in liquor prices and licence plate renewals. Further, to ensure that they will get support from the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP), the Liberals will hold off on lowering corporate taxes, which will remain at 11.5 per cent.
This is what a government in a minority position will do to keep an election at bay, because who wants to go to the polls again just six months after the last election?
Despite the bluster from opposition leader, Tim Hudak, that the Conservatives will not support the budget, the minority Liberal government did not present an aggressive budget that could trigger an election. The McGuinty Liberals were returned to office for a third term, albeit with a minority government, just last October and they must be gambling that most people don’t want to have to endure another political campaign now. So the Conservatives will fulminate to ensure that we know they are doing their job, and the NDP will “consult” with Ontarians. That means we can expect some compromises before the budget is voted on in late April.
Two important questions that the Liberals have to answer are that of increasing revenue and job creation. The deficit cannot be paid down just by cutting expenditures.
Earlier this month, Duncan, along with Ontario Lottery and Gaming chief, Paul Godfrey, announced an expansion of gaming enterprises, including a new casino. And just to show that the Liberals want us to have a good time while giving them our money through the slot machines and lottery tickets, they plan to open more liquor stores.
Times may be more challenging than we think if the government is counting on us gambling and drinking our way to a new era of prosperity.
A note on the Leafs going golfing…
The Carolina Hurricanes made it final for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night knocking them out of this year’s playoffs prospects with a 3-0 score. That’s makes it the seventh straight season that the Leafs haven’t made it into the playoffs. The last time Maple Leaf fans had a hope for their team was way back in 2003-4 season. That was the end of a playoff streak that began in the 1998-99 season, a six-year stretch that we can now look back on as the Leafs last golden period.