Premier Doug Ford’s government is listening and Finance Minister Rod Phillips really wants you to know that.
“We listened to Ontarians,” said Phillips in a news conference after delivering the government’s budget update on Wednesday afternoon.
“We listened to what they thought was working well in the plan that we had, and we listened to the concerns that they had,” Phillips added.
“So you can expect this is a government that has listened and is going to continue to listen, and make sure that we make adjustments as we go along.”
The fiscal tally of all that listening is found in the pages of Phillips’s fall economic statement. The document accounts for the government’s recent backtracks, updating the budget from the $163.4 billion spending plan tabled in April by Vic Fedeli, whom Ford dumped as finance minister two months later.
The fall economic statement is part of the Ford government’s attempts to portray itself as new and improved, striking a new tone, turning over a new leaf. The budget update tries to do this by highlighting the spending cuts on which the government reversed course and recasting them as spending increases.
Technically, it’s true the PCs are increasing program spending by $1.3 billion from the April budget. In reality, this is simply putting some spending cuts that didn’t happen back on the government’s books.
Does a reversal of a spending cut equal a spending increase? NDP leader Andrea Horwath doesn’t think so.
The fiscal update reflects merely “a softening of their previous cuts, a backtracking on some of their cuts, a delaying of some of their cuts, but really the cuts are still coming,” Horwath said Wednesday on CBC’s Power and Politics.
She said the document will not put a single laid-off nurse back to work at a hospital.
The new finance minister hasn’t fundamentally changed the budget that the old finance minister put in place, and acknowledged as much in his news conference.
“This isn’t about grand gestures,” said Phillips. “It’s about incremental important changes that make life easier for people.”
The update shows — just as the April budget did — that nearly every ministry is undergoing spending cuts this year from 2018-19 levels. Nominal increases in spending on health and education are not increases in real-dollar terms when population growth and inflation are considered.
One key number in the fall economic statement shows how the PCs have under-budgeted for the growing demand for health services. There’s an increase of $227 million on the books attributed to “increased utilization of physician and other services under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.”
John Fraser, the Liberal interim leader, accused the PCs of continuing to exaggerate the size of the deficit to justify cuts.
“We just can’t trust their numbers,” said Fraser on Wednesday.
He says the Ford government is making the province’s fiscal position look worse than it is by low-balling estimated revenues. It’s forecasting a two per cent increase in tax revenue, when the average annual increase over the past five years has clocked in at 6.4 per cent.
The government admits its tax revenue estimates for the current year are already off. It has boosted its corporate tax revenue projection by $936 million and personal income tax revenues by $525 million.
The extra revenues will make it easier to balance the budget. Yet the Ford government’s overall goal is still restraint, and there’s more austerity to come. Its forecasts for total program spending in the coming two fiscal years do not keep up with projected rates of inflation and population growth.
What this all means: before concluding that the Ford government has really hit the brakes on cuts, wait for the budget in March.