TORONTO - Ontario's finance minister says the province's deficit is $10.9 billion — lower than the previously projected $12.5 billion.Charles Sousa made the announcement today during a pre-budget speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade.Sousa has said a provincial budget will be tabled this spring, but has not yet announced a date for it.The Liberal government last year announced a projected deficit of $12.5 billion for 2014-15 as it attempts to balance the books by 2017-18.Various analysts and credit rating agencies have expressed skepticism that Ontario can eliminate the deficit by then, but Sousa insists it can be achieved.Sousa says the path to balance is through finding savings in government programs, managing compensation costs and "maintaining" revenue.The government is reviewing its program spending, which Sousa said is projected to save $1.25 billion over the next three years. It is also in the midst of bargaining with public sector workers, with a target of net zero so that any increases are offset. The annual sunshine list, released last week, showed a 14-per-cent jump in the number of public sector workers making more than $100,000 per year. The spring budget is expected to reveal government plans for asset sales, but the Liberals have said any money generated will go toward transit and other infrastructure projects.Sousa has so far not ruled out raising taxes and the Liberals have said they won't cut services and programs to get to balance.Fitch Ratings downgraded Ontario's long-term debt rating in December, warning of "difficult actions'' that would be needed to eliminate the deficit in just two years. Moody's changed Ontario's debt rating last July to negative from stable, citing similar concerns.Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has warned that even if the deficit is eliminated in 2017-18, Ontario's net debt will have soared to $325 billion, more than double the level of a decade ago.Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli said the government did not have a line-by-line set of numbers in projection tables in last year's budget for how it will get to balance."They're just left blank," he said Tuesday. "This is supposed to show us how they balance the books. They show a made-up revenue number, they show a made-up expense number, but there's no line by line for either of them and they magically add up to a zero, a balanced budget in 2017-18."NDP Leader Andrea Horwath predicted the upcoming budget would contain bad news for taxpayers as the Liberals try to reach balance, and said it was no surprise they had once again managed to "beat" their interim deficit reduction goals."This is what government does every time, announce just before a budget that they have done some great things to best their deficit targets," said Horwath. "The government is going to bring forward a very ugly budget."Ontario has the lowest per capita program spending in Canada, Sousa said. Program spending growth has increased an average of 1.2 per cent per year from 2010-14 and is projected to grow by 0.8 per cent until 2018, he said.
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