MPPs returned to Queen’s Park on Tuesday after an eventful winter break. The government had to deal with the details of its major health-care changes being leaked to the NDP, ongoing criticism of its decision to appoint a friend of Premier Doug Ford as head of the Ontario Provincial Police, and more. And, as of this week, it’ll once again have to contend with the routine scrutiny of Question Period.
The Tories will be trying to pass some major policies in the legislature before they rise for the summer break, and even though they’ve got until June, there’s never as much time in the political calendar as the government would like. Here’s a rundown of some of the political problems the government is currently facing — and of some issues already on the horizon.
Autism therapy funding
The biggest political problem for the government is its recent decision to change how the funding for therapy for families with autistic children is distributed. The Tories inherited a system that saw the government fund the costly behavioural therapies for children with autism, but, as funding was limited, the program had long wait-lists. Minister of Children and Youth Services Lisa MacLeod announced earlier this month that the same amount of funding would now be distributed equally, meaning that the money will effectively be spread around a population four times larger.
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The move has outraged many parents, who were a political force to be reckoned with in the last years of the Liberal government. (A slogan originally adopted during the Wynne years, “Autism doesn’t end at four,” has now been repurposed for the current government: “Autism doesn’t end at Ford.”) There have already been protests outside the constituency offices of Progressive Conservative MPPs, and another large protest is planned for March 7 at Queen’s Park.
The Tories had cultivated a relationship with the autism community in recent years, hiring advocates to work in PC MPP offices. That relationship might have been irreparably harmed: MacLeod was forced to apologize after her office was accused of having threatened a group of behavioural analysts with “four long years” if it didn’t support the government’s policies, and the former president of the Ontario Autism Coalition quit his job in MacLeod’s Queen’s Park office in protest.
What’s the budget plan?
At some point in the spring, the government will need to present its plan for balancing the budget. Finance Minister Vic Fedeli announced last week that the government has already shaved $1 billion off the projected deficit for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which will end on March 31. That billion (the result, the government says, of higher-than-expected economic growth) is welcome news, but it still leaves the government with a $13.5 billion deficit to close and limited options for doing so without service cuts or tax increases.
The Financial Accountability Office released a report on Valentine’s Day comparing Ontario’s fiscal position with that of other provinces, and the main message is that Ontario has lower tax rates than other provinces and spends less per person, especially on health care.
Fedeli has said that he intends to follow the Goldilocks rule in his plan to balance the budget: “It won't be too soon, because quite frankly nobody would believe it,” he told reporters at Queen’s Park last week. “It won't be too long, because anybody can do that. It will be just right.”
The big health-care bill
We’ve already been given a sneak peek at the government’s health-care overhaul, and it’s likely to be the non-budget bill that dominates the legislative calendar this spring. Health care is by far the government’s largest expenditure, and even marginal changes to the system would involve billions of dollars in spending. And the Tories aren’t thinking marginally — they’re looking at major wholesale changes: existing agencies will be collapsed into one “super-agency” that will have broad powers to change who delivers health care and long-term care.
But the bill hasn’t been introduced to the legislature yet, much less scrutinized in committee. The public doesn’t know how closely the government’s legislation will resemble what the NDP leaked earlier this year or what changes the government has made or will make to it. The government wants the bill to pass in this spring sitting, which means it will have plenty of time to implement any changes during the rest of its mandate.
The house is currently scheduled to sit until June 6.