Tories Get Priorities Wrong in Ontario Budget

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Since the Mike Harris Government was elected in 1995, Ontarians have become used to Orwellian excesses in the titles for government documents.

But the title of this year's Ontario budget, "Responsible Choices" may set a new standard for doublespeak.

Is it a responsible choice to lock in massive corporate income taxes - cuts that will leave Ontario with tax rates half those in neighbouring jurisdictions - when there is no evidence that these cuts do anything other than damage our ability to fund public services? New corporate income tax cuts announced in this budget will cost Ontarians more than $2-billion worth of public services in the future.

Is it responsible to continue to cut real, per-student funding in elementary and secondary education when the system is already slipping into under-funded chaos? Real per-student funding for elementary and secondary education is now $2.4-billion below its level in 1995. Even with the increases announced over the past few weeks and repeated in the budget, elementary and secondary education will fall a further $325-million behind this year. Real per-student funding for 2001-2002 will be more than $1,000 below the 1995 funding level.

Is it responsible to cut capital funding to its lowest level in decades, when everyone acknowledges that our public infrastructure is crumbling around us? Ontario's allocation for capital expenditures will be less than $2-billion in 2001-2002 - 0.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). That compares with funding at 1.4 per cent of GDP a decade ago.

Is it responsible to increase funding for the province's ministry of environment by only $22-million in the first budget following the Walkerton tragedy? Capital spending will actually be down by $3-million.

Is it responsible to provide to colleges and universities less than half the money they need as a minimum to meet increased enrolment? The budget promises $283-million by 2003-2004; the university sector alone told the government it needed a minimum of $600-million. Is it responsible for a government to ignore the social policy crisis that its policies have created? Homelessness continues to increase. The supply of affordable housing continues to decline, as rents and economic evictions soar, and as more rental units are converted to other uses. Yet there is not one cent in the budget for housing. In fact, the budget of the ministry of municipal affairs and housing is down by more than $600-million this year.

The poorest of the poor in Ontario continue to be ignored. Social assistance recipients have already suffered a 30 per cent cut in their standard of living since the Harris government was elected. Yet social assistance payments remain frozen.

Municipalities, universities, hospitals and school boards across the province are starved for cash as they struggle to deal with the legacy of years of downloading, budget cuts and pointless restructuring. The government's response? A promise of legislation to prevent them from running deficits.

The Harris government's 2001-2002 budget makes the notorious Roman Emperor Nero - the man who fiddled while Rome burned - look responsible.

It would be bad enough if this disastrous budget were based on a coherent and believable economic perspective. It is not. This budget continues the provincial government's "don't confuse us with facts" adherence to the belief that its tax cuts are responsible for Ontario's economic performance.

It ignores the fact that fully 90 per cent of the growth in Ontario's GDP since the government was elected is attributable to growth in exports to the United States. It claims that Ontario's growth is consumption-led in the face of the evidence that the province's economic growth started to turn south immediately after the U.S. economy began to slow down.

And it ignores the widespread consensus that the quality of our health and education systems, the quality of life in our cities and the quality of our public infrastructure are the keys to prosperity in the future.

If the government really means it when it says its focus is on the health of the economy, it is doing exactly the wrong thing. The key to the province's economic future is not in winning the race to the bottom in public services. Ontarians are paying a very heavy price already for the Harris government's budget policies.

Important areas of public service are in chaos. Public infrastructure is deteriorating. Public debt has increased by $14-billion simply to pay the cost of cutting taxes in the face of a budget deficit. It costs us $800-million a year now in interest on that increased debt.

By the time the provincial government has finished with the tax cuts it announced, Ontario's annual fiscal capacity will have been reduced by nearly $16-billion.

The priorities are all wrong. The economics doesn't make any sense. And the title of the budget is a lie.

Instead of "Responsible Choices," it should be called "Ideological Fixations."

Hugh Mackenzie is co-chair of the Ontario Alternative Budget Working Group and research director for the United Steelworkers of America.

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