McGuinty's First Budget -- A Reluctant Thumbs Up

McGuinty and Sorbara

Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

I'd have to say that the smartest thing about Dalton McGuinty's first budget here in Ontario is how well he managed expectations. After taking over and finding that the outgoing Eves government had saddled Ontarians with a $5.6 billion deficit, the first three months of McGuinty's administration was hit repeatedly with lots of bad news. People looked to McGuinty's first budget with dread. "Bad News" they named it. Overwhelming deficits! Tax hikes! Massive cuts in spending! Reneging on the gas tax promise!

Now, looking through the reaction of the various interest groups cobbled together for the local media, the consensus from such divergent groups as hospital administrators, teachers union officials, Mayors Carl Zehr and Herb Epp, and technology business leaders, is that the budget is unspectacular, but competent. Every one of the representatives had something nice to say, even as they all expressed some disappointment over having not gotten what they want.

I agree with the assessment that the budget is unspectacular but competent. The Conservatives will hammer on the broken promises not to increase taxes and the NDP will hammer on the broken promises not to spend more money sooner, but I think the general public are already immune to such hyperbole. I never looked to the McGuinty government to fulfill all its promises to the letter. Politicians can't predict the future, and we don't elect them to do so. Those that make specific promises are being somewhat foolish, and Mike Harris also showed that some promises are better broken.

Instead, I looked to the general direction the McGuinty Liberals would take Ontario after they were elected. Their statements suggested a pragmatic, middle-ground approach, which this budget fulfills. Although McGuinty foolishly signed the Taxpayers Protection pledge, he at least acknowledged that there were neglected sectors of our province that required reinvestment. His commitments to stabilize health and education, and to give municipalities a new dedicated revenue stream would cost money. For me, the promise not to raise taxes was the one promise I wanted McGuinty to break.

He'll take heat for it, especially for the sneaky tax-hike-in-all-but-name health care premiums and the deepening addiction to sin taxes, but I'm looking at the books and I'm seeing a reduced deficit, improved funding for health and education and, most importantly, a transfer of 1 cent per litre of the gas tax to our municipalities with a commitment to more to come. All of this is a significant improvement on the Harris/Eves years, and it gives me reason enough to give this budget a cautious thumbs up.

Nobody walked away from this budget with everything they wanted. I myself lose OHIP coverage for routine optometry visits, while Erin loses coverage for her chiropractic visits (mind you, in the latter, OHIP didn't cover all that much). Nurses and hospital administrators liked the direction McGuinty was going but worried that not enough was happening fast enough. Teachers said that the money received only brought education up to where it would have been had Harris not intervened. Technology business leaders may have received tax cuts, but they were piddling. Toronto Mayor David Miller didn't make a big issue of it, but the transfer of the gas tax is being phased in, while the needs of the TTC are immediate and costly. And, of course, everybody's going to sting a little when $25 more comes out of an average paycheque in order to pay for increased health care costs.

But that's the way it goes. We live in a world of limited resources, and the governments we elect cannot give us all that we want right away. The McGuinty Liberals, at least, have acknowledged the many challenges facing this province and, while there's still hard slogging ahead, we can take comfort in the fact that we have the government's moral support, at least.

Province Goes Slow on Waterloo Region LRT

After McGuinty announced $600 million to upgrade Ottawa's LRT into a full-fledged network, residents of Waterloo Region (myself especially) were looking forward to a similar announcement regarding Kitchener-Waterloo's proposed line. Waterloo Region had already promised its $81 million share for the $256 million phase one line running between Fairview Mall in Kitchener and Conestoga Mall in Waterloo (via downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo and the University of Waterloo). Unfortunately, the announcement which came through on Tuesday during the budget gave Waterloo Region just $2 million to complete technical and environmental assessments.

The money moves the project forward slowly, but it is a disappointment coming after the major commitment that Ottawa received. We have our traffic problems as well, and we know where we want the tracks to go. Come on, guys: it's just another $170 million. Surely you could come up with that!

News Headlines

Our four major newspapers each put out competing headlines on the budget which plainly showed their bias. This time, however, I think it's the Star that's being somewhat cheeky:

  • National Post: Tax Hike Largest Since NDP (Judgmental, but accurate. However, given that Mike Harris sits between Dalton McGuinty and Bob Rae in the timelines, the Post is praising with faint damn. A tax increase of one penny off our paycheques would be the largest since NDP)
  • Toronto Sun: From Fiberals to Bald Faced LIARS (and the Toronto Sun shows itself to be obnoxious lout who throws his beer across the bar and starts a brawl. A better headline would have been what graces their website: "Budget Shatters No-Tax Promise", which is the most accurate of the headlines, and which allows Sun readers to make their own judgments)
  • The Globe and Mail: Code Red! (Somewhat alarmist, but lacking in detail. It can be read in a variety of ways)
  • Toronto Star: Healthy Tax Hike (A groaner of a pun. And cheeky to the point that it suggests direct connections between this paper and the government)
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