TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government is breaking its promise to maintain a balanced budget this year, saying its upcoming fiscal plan will run a deficit in order to fund programs for seniors, women and students ahead of a spring election.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa said Wednesday that the budget will be delivered on March 28.
"I firmly believe you have to invest to create growth," Sousa said in a speech to a Toronto business audience. "You cannot create jobs by beggaring your future prospects. As I have said many times — balancing the budget is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. And that end is a stronger Ontario."
Sousa, who will be delivering his sixth budget as finance minister, said the province will run a deficit of less than one per cent of its gross domestic product starting next year but would not confirm a specific figure.
Deficit could run as high as $8B
According to the Ministry of Finance, Ontario's gross domestic product sat at $794 billion in 2016, the latest publicly available data. Using those figures, the government's budget deficit could run as high as almost $8 billion.
Last year, the Liberals posted the province's first balanced budget in a decade and had projected balanced books through to 2019-20. As recently as November, in the government's Fall Economic Statement, Sousa said the 2018 budget would be balanced.
The minister said Wednesday that the decision to run a deficit is, in part, a response to challenges the province is facing. He hinted repeatedly that the budget will include measures to help women, students and seniors.
"We have to invest more and that doesn't come cheap," he said. "So here is the choice: ignore these costs of care to stay in balance or use our fiscal room to invest more in mental health, long-term care and child care."
The budget will outline a path to return to balance, Sousa noted.
The minister also suggested the opposition Progressive Conservatives, who have are days away from selecting a new party leader, did not plan to balance the books if they took power after the June election.
"They will cut services, roll back minimum wage and sacrifice those working at the lowest incomes," he said.
Tory finance critic Lisa MacLeod said the upcoming fiscal blueprint amounts to nothing more than a "last-ditch ploy to win the next election."
"This is a government that has no real beliefs other than their own political self-interest," she said. "Now, right before an election, they're cynical and willing to do or say anything to cling to power."
NDP finance critic John Vanthof said the Liberal government's budget is an "election document" and Ontario residents shouldn't be fooled by the spending it's going to pledge.
"An old, tired government like this should not be evaluated on a budget full of promises," he said. "It should be evaluated on its history and where its direction has been. Its direction hasn't been for the ordinary people of this province."