By Lee Greenberg, The Ottawa Citizen
National PostTORONTO — The provincial government is scaling back a planned hike in child benefits and freezing social assistance, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Sunday, as Ontario grapples with a solution to its $16-billion deficit.
Rather than rising by $200 per year in July 2013, the child benefit will rise by $100. It will increase by the same amount one year later.
Provincial social assistance programs — which include Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program — will be frozen.
“We believe these are the right choices,” McGuinty told reporters in Toronto.
The announcement comes just days before the government’s seminal March 27th budget containing McGuinty’s response to a growing financial crisis in the province.
During eight years in power, McGuinty’s Liberals raised spending to the point where it now far outstrips revenues. Ontario is currently paying $10 billion annually in debt servicing charges alone and is technically considered a have-not province in Confederation.
In reaction to the announcement, Kathleen Fortin, a board member Ottawa ACORN, which addresses issues for low and moderate-income people, said her disability cheque of $751, which is her only income, will freeze — but the cost of her monthly necessities won’t.
“It’s very expensive to eat, especially fruits and vegetables,” said Fortin, 48, who suffers from cerebral palsy.
She said the government should find a way to solve its problems other than taking it from the poor.
“We didn’t run up the deficit,” she said.
Linda Lalonde, co-chair of the Ottawa Poverty Reduction Network, said other measures by the government have given landlords greater scope to raise rents, so those who pay market rates and have their benefits frozen are going to get “further behind.”
“You’ll have evictions, you’ll have other consequences,” Lalonde said. “They don’t happen tomorrow, or next week or shortly after the budget. They’ll happen over the course of the year and they’ll be spread out as people get mired in their expenses.”
This winter, McGuinty was warned to implement serious spending restraint or risk doubling the already massive deficit within five years.
In recent weeks, the Liberals have announced the massive expansion of gambling in the province, the sale of at least eight Toronto office buildings, the reduction of unspecified billions in planned infrastructure funding and increased drivers’ fees.
However, with only a 53-seat minority government behind him, McGuinty must either convince Conservatives to back his budget, or temper that restraint with measures that satisfy New Democrats if he wishes to remain in power.
McGuinty said both parties will find elements in Tuesday’s budget that will please them.
He appears to be targeting New Democratic Party support specifically.
“I had a chance to chat with (New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath) briefly,” McGuinty told reporters Sunday. “And I think there are a number of areas in the budget where she will find she can be specifically supportive. The fact of the matter is that we’re up against it, from a fiscal perspective, and we’ve decided not to make cuts to programs where governments have traditionally made cuts when they’ve had deficits before.”
Neither party would pledge its support Sunday.
New Democrat MPP Mike Mantha said the social assistance freeze and child benefit delay were “concerning” for that party.
“It’s something we’re going to have to look at,” Mantha said outside the Toronto youth centre where McGuinty made his announcement. “We need to make that decision based on what we see next week in this budget. We’re going to look at every part of that proposition and study it carefully.”
Ottawa MPP Lisa MacLeod, who represents Nepean-Carleton, said the Progressive Conservative party wants a province-wide public sector wage freeze for unions, a green energy overhaul, more jobs measures and a loosening of restrictions on skilled trades apprenticeships.
“Here’s the problem: if none of those markers are in the budget it’s going to be very hard for us to support it,” MacLeod said in a telephone interview Sunday. “We’ve laid our markers early in advance. The question now is what kind of coalition is Mr. McGuinty going to accept with the New Democrats.”
Indeed, McGuinty Sunday touted his own leftist credentials, pointing to past increases in social assistance, hikes in the provincial minimum wage, which now stands at $10.25, the highest in the country, as well as a dental plan for poor children.
He said the budget strikes an “appropriate balance” between health and education spending while also paying heed to economic constraints.
“We’re not going to balance the budgets on the backs of our poor families and our kids,” he said.
Ontario’s child benefit offers as much as $1,100 annually per child to poor families making less than approximately $35,000 net income.
Delaying the increase in payment will save the government $90 million.
McGuinty said if opposition parties unite to defeat his government, he would happily fight an election on Tuesday’s budget document.
“It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, I can tell you,” he said Sunday. “But we’ve worked so hard on it and put together what I think is a plan that is perfectly suited to our time and our circumstances. If called upon to do so I’d be proud to take it to Ontarians and say to them I need a mandate now so that I can get this job done.”
MacLeod said McGuinty’s election challenge is ill-timed. The government is currently embattled in a scandal over lax controls on the provincial air ambulance service, Ornge.
“If he wants to go to an election and talk about Ornge for 28 days, it’s going to be interesting,” she said. “He won’t win.”
with files from Zev Singer
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