Ontario, as with many governments, is lucky its debt interest payments are not substantially higher given its almost doubled debt. That has everything to do with historically low interest rates. But luck is not a long-term strategy for governments -- at least not ones that prefer prudence over accidental fiscal offerings.
Consider that in 2013/14 interest on the provincial debt was $10.6 billion. According to the province's fall fiscal update, that was just over half of all provincial sales tax revenue paid by Ontarians last year ($20.5 billion). So Ontarians should know that when you pay your provincial sales tax at the till, half of it flutters away just to pay your provincial government's debt interest.
Ontario has dug itself into a deep financial hole. The responsible thing to do is curb government spending to balance the books. But some analysts are suggesting that Ontario should raise taxes. McGill University's Dr. Christopher Ragan has even called for a carbon tax. This is a terrible idea. The last thing cash-strapped Ontario families can bear right now is a tax on everything.
We've seen this script before. Higher spending. Tax increases. Persistent deficits. Growing debt. Warnings from credit rating agencies. A government unwilling to make the tough choices to turn things around. That's the Ontario of the 1980s and early 1990s. It's also where the province finds itself today.
Bob Rae and Kathleen Wynne are hardly the only (former and current) politicians to engage in storytelling. Politicians of every partisan stripe do the same thing. But while stories are useful and guide us in a variety of beneficial ways, the rational side of human nature should revisit tales now and then, especially political ones. That leads to better, smarter government. Ontario is no exception.
The government already spends 9.2 per cent of its revenues to service its debt and, according to its own estimates, this will rise to nearly 11 per cent in the next four years. Put plainly, Ontario spends $1 out of every $10 sent to Queen's Park to pay for past debt. This is money not spent on health care, education, transportation, or other public priorities. The increase in rates and the expectation for further hikes means even more tax revenues will go to paying interest instead of key government services.
It's far from perfect, but it is a sign of good will that the government has been listening to its critics -- namely the Ontario NDP who demanded no new taxes on "the middle class" and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who has long called for a dedicated fund to tie taxes collected from drivers with roadway spending.
Since the financial meltdown in 2008-09, Quebec has run massive deficits each year. The province is on track to add $53 billion to its total provincial debt -- a 35 per cent increase -- by the end of the year. But in the same period, Ontario under McGuinty and Wynne will add $120 billion to its debt -- a 71 per cent increase.
For the sake of future generations, we need to take immediate and forceful action to deal with Ontario's massive deficit. And of course, to cut the deficit we will need to cut government waste, and that includes cutting the wasteful practices so prevalent in our education system. Ontario is going to have to take drastic action lest it go the way of Greece.
Having won the Ontario Liberal Party's leadership, Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne has a golden opportunity to chart a new course and undo Dalton McGuinty's legacy of fiscal mismanagement. As Wynne contemplates priorities for her leadership she should seriously consider putting Ontario's deficit and debt problem on the top of her to-do list