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MPPs shoot down budget

Oshawa's provincial politicians both say money could've been spent better elsewhere in latest spending plan from Queen's Park

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

While they may represent two different parties, Oshawa’s two MPPs could agree on one thing: they do not like the latest provincial budget.

The ruling Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne released their financial plan for 2016 ahead of schedule, laying out a $133.9-billion spending plan that carries with it a $4.3-billion deficit.

Charles Sousa, the province’s finance minister, says this will be the last budget coming in in the red, with the books getting balanced for the 2017 budget.

In this spending plan, the Liberals highlighted $137 billion over the next decade for infrastructure spending, the creation of the Ontario Student Grant that would make the average college and university tuition free for those coming from households with incomes under $50,000 and launching the enrolment process for the upcoming Ontario Retirement Pension Plan.

Rookie Whitby-Oshawa MPP Lorne Coe, however, says that the provincial budget is really more of a matter of give and take, and parts of the population suffered more of the take.

“Nothing in that budget gives without taking away from something else. For example, you look at the seniors. It’s certainly going to be harder for them, isn’t it?” the Progressive Conservative MPP tells The Oshawa Express, later detailing cuts being made in this budget to physiotherapy services, growing hydro rates and medication costs.

“Furthermore, what they’ve done in the case of seniors that really I find disturbing is that they’ve eliminated the Healthy Homes Renovation Tax Credit, which helps seniors. Many seniors, particularly in my riding, live independently and safely in their homes. In my mind, who in the government is looking out for seniors? Not only in my riding, but across Ontario?”

Another issue Coe says he finds in the message delivered by the Wynne government was that hospitals would be getting more money.

“We’re not getting the full story from this government. Nothing, in my reading of the budget, gives without again taking away. I’m pleased, on one hand, to finally see a negligible investment in hospitals following…four years of frozen hospital budgets,” he says.

“When you step back from it, the funding increase hardly accounts for the average rate of growth for hospitals, which is estimated between four and six per cent. So, what you see, again in the case of hospital spending increases, is a government claiming one thing but doing another. What I’m hearing from the people I represent in Whitby-Oshawa is that the reality is the government’s ongoing cuts to healthcare continue to hurt residents.”

Jennifer French, the MPP for Oshawa, says what the budget is lacking is a plan for those still working.

“This is a budget they titled, ‘Jobs for Today and Tomorrow,’ and as we’re going through the budget, we recognize that it’s more about future jobs and maybe jobs tomorrow,” French says.

“It’s disappointing because in Oshawa, we have such a need to address unemployment and we were hoping to see good jobs on the horizon. We don’t. We don’t see any new funding to combat youth unemployment, so it’s across the board disappointing.”

French adds that the budget paints a bleak picture of Ontario’s employment future, with the government not able to meet its own employment goals.

“When the Liberals’ job projections were down by 60,000 – and let’s remember these are numbers they create for themselves – and they couldn’t even reach them,” French says.

“And 60,000 that’s like 10 GM Centres. That’s a lot. And we’re looking at this through our local lens and with the hit to manufacturing and what that means for us as a community. That is also something that is frustrating. The auto industry, in this budget, is a bottom-rung priority. It’s essentially an afterthought.”

Off to school

One of the budget items that has gained the most attention is the changes to funding for post-secondary educations, with those coming from households with an income of under $50,000 being able to attend college or university for free.

The Liberals say they will be able to fund the new Ontario Student Grant by canceling the tuition tax credit and education tax credit, which will save the government approximately $145 million each year according to budget figures.

The new funding program would make more funds available for students up front, coming in the form of grants and loans. For those coming from lower-income homes, the majority of funding would be comprised of grants.

Students coming from households making between $50,000 and $83,000 will have approximately half of their tuition covered by grants.

Speaking with The Oshawa Express shortly after the budget was passed, Don Lovisa, the president of Durham College, says the new funding for tuitions will be a big help to not only his institution, but also for many others across the province.

“It’s essentially going to make tuition free for these families. It’s a game changer. When students look at college education, university education, it’s a sticker shock. It’s a lot of money,” Lovisa said from Queen’s Park, where he was attending the announcement of the budget.

“So this is going to allow part of our population and part of our demographic in Durham to access higher education and…get a good education, get a good job and participate in the economy. Things will improve. It’s a welcome change. It’s a good news announcement for colleges right across the province and particularly Durham College.”

French, however, says that while making universities and colleges easier to afford and more accessible, it’s only solving part of the problem.

“We want more people to have access to affordable education, but we really do need for that education to be quality education. Ontario’s universities are still receiving the lowest level of funding in all of Canada, so we need those educations to be quality,” she says.

“Plus, we need there to be jobs for them to graduate into the world and fill.”

Coe, who was recently named the PC’s critic for colleges, training and education, says that while his party supports making colleges and universities easier to afford, the new program will leave many students without other forms of financial assistant now that the tuition and education tax credits are on the way out.

“So as a consequence, college and university students will be out $145 million in financial support,” Coe says.

“I support improving access to education, and so does the PC caucus. That being said…when you read between the lines in the budget, 70 per cent of Ontario families aren’t eligible for the full benefit of the Ontario Student Grant.”

Coe adds that if the Liberals want this plan to succeed, it’s going to take a lot of money and time to make it work.

“And then the changes that they have in the budget, in my view, are an experiment that will take years to play out and will also have to be followed with really intensive investments if accessibility is to be improved,” he says. “And that’s not only my opinion – that’s the opinion of other experts in the field.”