Don’t call it a comeback just yet.
The Doug Ford government’s spring budget will hit the clerk’s table Wednesday. It’ll be the first from recently minted finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, who says it will “finish the job” the PCs started last year of steering the province through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bethlenfalvy, who also runs the Treasury Board, said the theme is all about protecting people’s health and spurring job creators to begin to set the stage for post-pandemic recovery and climbing out of this year’s record-shattering $38.5 billion deficit (November’s fiscal plan, delayed for months thanks to COVID-19, forecast a shortfall of $33.1 billion for fiscal 2021-22).
That means a cash injection for health care (the PCs announced $1.2 billion to help hospitals recover from financial pressures related to COVID-19) and hard-hit long-term care (another $933 million for LTC beds and upgrades was also unveiled last week).
It may also begin to chart the path to getting Ontario back in the black — because of the uncertainty swirling around the pandemic, no specific timeline was included in last fall’s budget.
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But don’t expect too many vote-grabbing electioneering-style goodies in the PCs penultimate fiscal blueprint; the government may want to hold some for the lead-up to the next scheduled election, on June 2, 2022.
Mitch Davidson, executive director of StrategyCorp’s Institute of Public Policy and Economy and Ford’s former policy chief, is expecting to see assistance- and recovery-related planks, including for child care — something PC circles have been buzzing about in the run-up to budget day. “We haven’t had that much time pass [since November’s budget],” he says. “Normally, you’ve got a calendar year between budgets; here, you’ve got about five months. So I don’t think the thinking is fundamentally changed, given that the pandemic isn’t over in any way.”
While Davidson is skeptical that the PCs will introduce universal child care, he says they could, for example, make “incremental improvements” to the CARE tax credit, which was introduced in 2019 and allows eligible families to claim up to 75 per cent of daycare expenses: “It’s been excessively clear that the pandemic has impacted women more than men, and it’s been clear that it’s impacted women with children more than anyone else.”
Another issue the pandemic has highlighted is mental health. Katie Heelis, who leads the health practice of Enterprise Canada, a national strategic-communications firm, says she’ll be looking out for much-needed investments to address the demand for such services. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” she says. “We’re at a huge risk of not doing the system transformation that’s needed in mental health.”
As vaccinations are now slowly but surely churning out and the health-care system is turning an eye to the surgery backlog, Heelis is also hoping that the budget will address how the province will deal with chronic staffing shortages and burnout among health-care professionals.
One thing Karl Baldauf, vice-president at McMillan Vantage and Bethlenfalvy’s ex-chief of staff, is banking on in Wednesday’s budget is big spending in order to “right the economy” and “build out legacy projects” from the Ford PCs, whose pledge to balance the books was blown out of the water amid COVID-19.
“This is the moment when I think people are prepared to accept a higher degree of spending,” Baldauf says, adding that he’ll be keeping an eye peeled, not so much for straight-up grants to companies, but for “pro-growth structural reforms” aimed at boosting productivity and enabling new tax revenue for social programs. “An example of this might be something like broadband-infrastructure investment or transit and highway-trade corridors or providing loans to businesses at a level not previously seen, and be prepared to accept that there will be some losses,” he says. “But also doing that to orient a culture change in terms of taking risk, enabling businesses to accelerate transitions to automation and digitization.”