NEWS

Ontario girds for cuts ahead of today's budget

03/26/2012 02:43 EDT | Updated 05/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan says he's willing to take his budget to voters if the opposition fails to support it and forces an election.

Speaking Monday — one day ahead of unveiling a budget expected to include significant cuts — Duncan said the Liberal government will outline plans for spending restraint while protecting health care and education.

CBC News learned late Monday that the budget will include measures to reform pensions for Ontario's public sector workers.

The changes will target the government's contribution, as well as retiree benefits.

Government sources say the goal is to make it more sustainable for the government and fairer for the two-thirds of workers who pay taxes but don't have a pension.

Without reform, pension costs to the government will rise about 70 per cent in five years, CBC's Mike Crawley says.

As a minority government, Duncan's Liberals need at least two opposition members to support the budget. Without their help the government could fall, sending voters back to the polls with memories of October's election still fresh in their minds.

Duncan said he's held budget talks with both the NDP and Progressive Conservatives in recent weeks.

"Some of their input is reflected in the budget, some of it isn't," he told reporters Monday.

"There will be some things in the budget they like and there will be some things they don't like. We'll be taking a balanced approach, and we'll be asking everyone to do their share."

And if opposition support doesn't come?

"If they are not prepared to offer a concrete alternative, they'll have to defeat the budget and we'll go to the election," said Duncan. "We have a plan, we're prepared to take that to the people."

While Duncan repeated his plans to protect education and health care, he also said the budget's main focus will be paring down Ontario's $16-billion deficit.

Welfare freeze

The Liberals have already announced they will freeze welfare rates, end support for the Ontario Northland railway and will stop sending a share of slot-machine revenue to the horse racing industry.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said Sunday the province will also pare back an increase to the Ontario Child Benefit in the year ahead by spreading it out over a two-year period.

But deeper cuts are expected. In a government-commissioned report released in February, economist Don Drummond said the province had to make drastic cuts to avoid seeing the deficit balloon to $30 billion by 2018.

The Liberals want one million public sector workers to accept a wage freeze, with Duncan noting 55 cents of every dollar the cash-strapped government spends goes toward salaries and benefits.

In what may be an indication of things to come, the province has taken a tough line in negotiating a new contract with teachers. Others who depend on the province for their paycheques are girding for a fight ahead of tomorrow's budget.

Finance ministers usually wear a new pair of shoes on budget day. Scores of old shoes were dropped at the door of Duncan's constituency office on Monday. It was a protest organized by the Canadian Union of Public Employees against the expected cuts to come in Tuesday's budget.

"Many of us are expecting some drastic cuts to be announced in the next few days," Andrea Madden, a child welfare worker and Windsor District CUPE council president, told CBC News.

Duncan is no stranger to protest howls at budget time. This is his sixth provincial budget, but his first in a minority government.

Two years ago he embarked on diet and fitness regime.

When reporters commented Monday on his slimmer silhouette, Duncan said the goal now is to "get the budget's blood pressure down."

"Balancing the budget is the most important thing we can do in terms of creating jobs and stimulating growth in the Ontario economy," he said. "I think Ontarians are ready for this, I think they understand the need for it."

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