… Top 23 takeaways from the Ontario budget

NationalPost.com – News/Canada/Politics
April 27, 2017.   Ashley Csanady

After almost a decade in the red, the Ontario books are back in black.

And the governing Liberals aren’t booking those savings but investing in expanded social programs, pilot projects, health care and education a year before the next provincial election.

Finance minister Charles Sousa said now that the books are balanced, the province is “investing in things that matter to us, like health care” as his spends millions on expanded drug coverage and new schools.

PC leader Patrick Brown accused the Liberals of playing a “shell game” to balance the books and suggested the deficit was still close to $5 billion.

“Today’s budget is more proof Ontario families will continue to pay more to get less,” he said.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath said Ontarians will simply “have to wait for a change in government” to see truly universal pharmacare, as the Liberals moved only to cover young people.

This budget, which could be Premier Kathleen Wynne government’s last to implement before an expected election next June, is setting the parties up for an extraordinarily long campaign. But the policies in the 2017 budget will affect lives across the province for years to come, regardless of who wins next year.

Here are 23 things you need to know about what’s in the 2017 Ontario budget:

Free drugs for kids under 24

Ontario will become the first province to offer pharmacare to all young people, regardless of income, who are 24 and under. Some 4,400 prescription drugs will be covered and the government estimates it will cost about $465 million a year. The co-pay for some seniors will also be reduced.

Free abortion pills

The province will cover Mifegymiso, the two-drug formula for medical abortion. Surgical abortion is already covered in the province, and the abortion pill will provide an alternative to women seeing to end a pregnancy up to seven weeks (though it is available up to 10 weeks in other countries). The pill, which only rolled out for Canadian use earlier this year, can cost as much as $400 a dose in some parts of Ontario, which advocates warned would dissuade some women from seeking the less invasive option. The drug will be prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists.

Simon Dawson/BloombergA pharmacist looks for medication on a pharmacy’s shelves in London, U.K., on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. European pharmaceuticals stocks in 2015 have outperformed the Stoxx 600 Index by 1.2 percentage points in U.S. dollar terms.

The books are balanced but the debt has topped $300-billion

The provincial books are balanced for the first time since the 2008/09 fiscal year, which means the province is no longer accruing deficits, or borrowing to pay for program spending. That doesn’t mean borrowing has stopped altogether, however, as the provincial debt continues to rise as the province pays for “capital spending” like new transit and hospitals. As of March 31, the provincial debt hit $301.9 billion, and it’s expected to grow another $26.4 billion this fiscal year alone. To service that debt, the province spends $11.6 billion a year, or 8.2 per cent of all its revenue. That’s more than it spends on the ministry of children and youth services or all of its post-secondary education system and just slightly less than it spends on all welfare programs for adults under the ministry of community and social services.

Helping libraries go digital

The province will spend $1 million to help libraries increase their digital services and upgrade wi-fi and other technology. It’s one of several ideas taken from the Ontario government’s “Budget Talks” website, which asked average citizens to submit ideas for the 2017 budget.

Transit tax credit for seniors

The province will create a tax credit for seniors who use public transit, which comes on the heels of the federal government cancelling a similar credit for all citizens. It will provide a refundable benefit of up to 15 per cent of transit costs to a maximum of $130 a year as of July 1.

Improved dementia care

The province will spend $20 million to increase respite care for dementia patients and increase the number of seniors’ centres in the province. The Liberals are also moving to streamline tax credits for caregivers of ill loved ones into one non-refundable program starting in the 2017 tax year.

Smoke ‘em while you can afford ‘em

The price of smokes is going up again. As of 12:10 a.m. April 28, the price of a carton (200 cigarettes) will increase by $2. That means a pack of 25 cigarettes will go up 25 cents. Each cigarette now has 16.475 cents worth of taxes on it, and the province will increase that by two cents per smoke each year. That will increase the cost of a carton by $10 over the next three years.

Cash for boobs and babies

The province is expanding a program to give new mothers breast pumps and increasing the Breast Milk Bank for parents of premature newborns. Newborn screening programs will also be expanded to include a hearing test. And, more midwives will be funded across the province; in particular remote indigenous communities will get new midwives, allowing more women to stay in their communities to give birth.

A break for IVF drugs

In 2015, the province started funding one round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and other fertility treatments but OHIP didn’t cover the costly drugs required to undergo the procedure. Since then, 7,200 people have received OHIP-funded fertility treatments, and from now on they’ll also be able to claim a medical expense tax credit for the costs of the associated fertility drugs.

No weed revenues

The budget doesn’t make mention of the pending legalization of marijuana in Canada, despite forecasts taxing the drug could prove a boon for both provincial and federal coffers. The finance minister has previously said they won’t be including any fiscal assumptions until they know what the provincial framework will look like.

Working towards gender equity in the board room

The province has already required corporations to ensure they have 30 per cent female representation on their boards of directors, or explain why not. Then, the province announced it would require greater female representation on all Crown corporations and it’s moving to study how to further increase the number of women in private corporate leadership. A plan “will be released in the coming months.”

Self-driving cars, quantum computers and 5G

The province is expanding support in high-tech industries as part and parcel of its existing jobs programming. The province is investing $130 million to help the development and spread of 5G wireless technology, $50 million to help develop artificial intelligence, $20 million for Quantum Valley in Waterloo and $80 million to help the development of autonomous vehicles. The province will also pour $75 million into advanced research computing and big data and $4 million on a pilot program to increase cybersecurity.

Cutting food waste

The province will spend $600,000 on a pilot program to take food that would be otherwise thrown out from supermarkets and make it available through food banks and other organizations. This is another of the ideas selected from suggestions from the public through Budget Talks.

More promises on the sharing economy

The province has been promising a comprehensive strategy for the sharing economy — which includes companies like Uber and AirBnB — for two years. The budget says that document will finally land later this spring. It also enables cities to create a hotel tax — something they’ve asked for as they grapple with the increase in home-sharing services.

Boosting mental health services

From elementary schools to jails to seniors centres, the province is improving mental health services in many of its service areas. In particular, its spending $73 million to increase OHIP-funded access to psychotherapy for ailments like depression and anxiety. They will also create one-stop mental health hubs for young people, where they can walk in and access a suite of services.

Digital vaccine data

Parents will soon be able to access their children’s immunization records — or “Yellow Cards” — online. It will cost $1 million and is the third idea taken from the public through budget talks.

Moving towards Truth and Reconciliation

The budget includes a number of initiatives to improve relationships with indigenous people and living conditions in remote communities. From an increase in midwives on-reserve to more funding for schools and post-secondary education in Aboriginal languages, there are pockets of funding to address some of the recommendations from the massive report. The budget also promises to amend the Public Service Oath of Office to acknowledge treaty rights.

Countering racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

The budget builds on the province’s previously announced anti-racism strategy. It promises specific programs to combat racism against indigenous people, a $47-million program to support black youth and public awareness campaigns to target racism, “including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”

The budget also confirmed a number of big promises the Liberals have made in recent weeks.

Basic income pilot project

Pilot projects to test a version of basic income in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsey, Ontario will begin next year. Four-thousand participants in those communities will be eligible to receive $16,989 a year as a single adult or $24,027 for couples, with an additional $6,000 a year for people with disabilities. Fifty per cent of any earned income would be clawed back from that amount, so someone who earned $10,000 would received another $11,989 in government support. The pilot replaces other welfare programs but participants would still receive, for example, the Canada Child Benefit.

Rental caps and housing markets

The budget confirms the Liberals’ promise to extend the province’s rent control provisions to buildings constructed after 1991, when previous restrictions didn’t apply to newer buildings constructed after that date. It also includes the promised tax on foreign-buyers of real estate in the Greater Toronto Area to try and cool soaring real estate prices in the area.

Childcare spaces

In its September throne speech, the province announced the creation of 100,000 child care spaces over five years. The budget added some details to that plan, pledging $200 million this fiscal year to add 24,000 child care spaces in Ontario. The promise also included subsidies for up to 60 per cent of the costs of child-care for low-income earners.

The status quo on transit but more cash for infrastructure

A ten-year provincial plan to invest in infrastructure keeps growing in each budget. In 2016, the province pledged $137 billion in capital investments; this year it’s $190 billion over 13 years. The increase is largely toward health care and education investments as the budget includes little in the way of new transit pledges. It reconfirms provincial funding for a number of light-rail projects and its support for planning for a Downtown Relief Line in Toronto. It also recommits to a study of the feasibility of a high-speed train network

Costly 25 per cent cut to hydro rates

The province has announced a cut to electricity rates in the province by taking the eight per cent provincial portion of the HST off of bills. That was announced last September; then earlier this year the province announced it would add another 17 per cent cut by essentially extending the debt on generation projects by another 25 years to lower rates by a total of 25 per cent now.

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