By Chad Ingram
The provincial budget tabled by the Ford government last week contains $186 billion in spending and years of planned deficits as the province seeks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Titled Ontario Action Plan: Protecting People’s Health and Our Economy, the budget contains billions in assistance and is receiving largely positive responses from a number of organizations.
“Ontario’s 2021 budget means supports for the hardest-hit sectors and communities, including right here in the Haliburton Highlands – much needed aid for women who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, and initiatives that will create a strong economic rebound related to tourism, training, and vital infrastructure such as broadband,” Andrea Strano, president of the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
Recognizing that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, racialized communities, Indigenous people and those with disabilities, the budget calls for the creation of a task force on inclusive economic growth. It also includes a temporary job retraining tax credit, for those who’ve been left underemployed or unemployed and are retraining for a different job.
On the tourism front, the budget expands the Ontario Small Business Support Grant to include hotels, hunting and fishing camps, travel agencies and other tourism-related businesses that did not qualify for eligibility under the initial program. The $100-million Ontario Tourism and Hospitality Small Business Support Grant program will provide one-time funding of $10,000 to $20,000 for hospitality-related businesses that didn’t initially qualify.
The Ontario Tourism Recovery Program is a $100-million initiative for established tourism businesses, designed to help them with costs related to restructuring, safe reopening, new marketing directions and partnership development amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The budget also includes a local tourism tax credit, designed to encourage Ontarians to check out Ontario destinations when public health guidelines indicate it is safe to do so.
A $20-million 2021 Reconnect Festival and Event Program is designed to assist organizations creating COVID-19-responsible events.
The budget contains $2.8 billion in spending on broadband projects, welcome news to the board of the Eastern Ontario Regional Network, owned by the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus. EORN recently announced that Rogers Communications was the winning bidder on its cell gap project, a $300-million undertaking that will upgrade 300 communications towers in eastern Ontario, and construct 300 new ones. The province contributed $71 million to that project, and EORN is now looking to the provincial and federal governments for $200 million each for its Gig project, which would bring Gig internet, with its incredibly fast speeds, to the region. It’s estimated that project will cost between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion.
“Reliable broadband will be key to the economic recovery from COVID-19 for rural communities,” said Murray Jones, warden of the County of Peterborough and chairman of the EORN board in a release, in response to the budget. “The government’s commitment today has the potential to finally bridge the digital divide and give people across Ontario the critical connectivity we need to succeed and thrive.
“The Gig project is a comprehensive solution to fix broadband for a generation,” Jones added. “We look forward to learning more details about the funding in today’s budget and we remain hopeful that it will mean positive news for the Gig project.”
Nearly $7 billion is budgeted for spending directly related to the pandemic, including $1 billion for vaccines, $1.8 billion in COVID-19 relief funding for hospitals to help care for patients and deal with surgical backlogs, and $650 million in relief funding for long-term care homes.
For families with children, a one-time COVID-19 child benefit payment will double from $200 per child in previous rounds of funding to $400 per child and $500 per child for children with disabilities. There is also increased funding to assist lower- and mid-income families with childcare costs.
“Our government continues to protect people by investing in our health care system, supporting the vaccine rollout plan, and fixing long-term care,” Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott said in a release. “Making important investments in ways that will directly impact families, jobs, and small businesses is how we will get the province back on track to economic recovery and defeat the COVID-19 virus.”
One major criticism of the budget is that it does not include legislation for paid sick leave, something that’s been called for by numerous advocacy groups and the Opposition NDP amid the continuing COVID-19 crisis.
Ontario ran a $38.5-billion deficit in 2020, and the deficit for the 2021/22 fiscal year is expected to be approximately $33 billion. Prior to the pandemic, the Ford government had aimed to get back to balanced budgets by 2023, but given the wide-reaching ramifications of the health crisis, it’s expected it will be at least the 2029/30 fiscal year before that’s a possibility.
The province will have half a trillion dollars in debt by 2024.