TORONTO - Exactly how much stranded debt is still left from the old Ontario Hydro won't be made public until the new year, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said Wednesday as he dismissed Opposition demands for an immediate update.
Hydro ratepayers have anted up about $8.7 billion in the past decade through a controversial debt retirement charge to pay off what was originally reported as $7.8 billion in residual stranded debt.
The Progressive Conservatives believe that debt has been paid off, and said it's time the Liberal government gave people an accurate accounting to justify the debt retirement charge on hydro bills.
"We don’t know where it stands," said Tory energy critic Vic Fedeli.
"What we’re suggesting now is quarterly reports so we can understand (the figure). As the auditor general said: 'Your time is up.'"
Auditor general Jim McCarter called on the Liberal government this month to update the outstanding hydro debt, most of which came from the nuclear program at the giant utility, which was later broken up into several different companies.
Legislation calls for the government to update the public on the stranded debt "from time to time." But the auditor said there has never been a public accounting of the debt since the retirement charge was added to electricity bills in 2002.
"It’s been a decade, we’ve paid more than $8 billion which was the original stranded debt, we kind of thought your time is up," he said.
"The minister of finance has to go to the public and say: 'Here’s how much is left and here’s about how long I think you’re going to have to keep paying it.'"
The government will provide an update on the size of the stranded hydro debt, "hopefully" before the spring budget, said Duncan.
"(The auditor) asked for an accounting and we’re going to do that. I think it’s good advice," said Duncan.
"Obviously we want to respond fairly quickly."
Duncan dismissed the criticism from the auditor and the Opposition about not once providing any update on the hydro debt since the Liberals came to power in 2003.
"It hasn’t really been required," he said.
"What we do know is we report every year on how much we pay down, which has been more than $1 billion a year since 2004."
The Opposition suspects the Liberals are using money from the debt retirement charge to finance their green energy policies or other pet projects, said Fedeli.
"It’s clear the McGuinty Liberals are using the debt retirement charge to pay for other hydro debt, and maybe even other expenditures," said Fedeli.
"It’s the only explanation for why they continue to hit Ontario families with the debt retirement charge each and every month."
The auditor confirmed there's no way to stop the government from spending money from the debt retirement charge in other areas.
"The debt retirement charge can actually be applied to anything the Ontario Electricity Financing Corporation does, and it can also be calculated in a number of different ways," said McCarter.
Asked why it would take the government so long to calculate the amount of the stranded debt, Duncan said his office was busy preparing the provincial budget expected in March.
"I don’t see that as a delay," said Duncan.
"We’ll certainly have a response in short order."