Stakeholders react to the 2020 Ontario budget

Stakeholders react to the 2020 Ontario budget

Finance Minister Rod Phillips' first budget was loathed and loved by various provincial stakeholders.

Read on for a roundup of what they had to say.

Business lobby

The business lobby was largely supportive of the budget, but the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) also called on the government to provide small businesses with more direct support in order to survive the COVID-19 crisis.

The CFIB says the budget contains some good news for small business owners, including lowering the Employer Health Tax and Business Education Tax. The group is also calling on the government to expand its promised $300 million support program, for which details have not yet been released, to allow more businesses than only those in the modified stage two areas to access it.

CFIB said it also welcomes the news that the government will cut energy costs by moving costs of some energy contracts onto the tax base.

"While CFIB appreciates the government’s actions in today’s budget to position Ontario for a strong recovery, greater direct support is still needed. Many small businesses can’t yet plan for the future, and must instead focus on surviving the present. We can’t get to the other side of COVID-19 without first dealing with the here and now, so we will continue to press the government to significantly expand direct support programs, including broader access to the $300 million relief program," said Ontario director Julie Kwiecinski.

Meanwhile, Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) president Rocco Rossi gave his thanks to the government for spending on broadband infrastructure, cutting business taxes and working on lowering hydro costs. The latter two issues have caused "considerable stress" for businesses during the pandemic, he said.

“Ontario’s business community welcomes today’s budget. It is an impactful response to the current crisis, and demonstrates the beginning of a long-term plan for economic growth,” he said in a statement. “This budget addresses many of the actions we, on behalf of Ontario’s business community, have been asking for. We believe that when business prospers, communities prosper.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) praised the "concrete and significant measures to improve business competitiveness and support innovation for Ontario's manufacturers."

"Specifically, the lowering of electricity prices, along with property and employment health taxes are particularly welcome as these measures will leave more money in the pockets of manufacturers to invest in their people, processes, and products," said President and CEO Dennis Darby.

"Equally important is the significant investment in reforming procurement processes that will both reduce costs and support local innovation, commercialization, and production," he said, referring to the Doug Ford government's plan to centralize government procurement and "take advantage of world-class capabilities of local Ontario businesses."

"Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters also welcomes the creation of a skilled trades strategy, and funding for micro-credentialing and training, including apprenticeships that will help address the labour shortage and improve company training for manufacturers."

Unions

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario slammed the budget, saying it "sets the stage for an even more dangerous future for Ontario."

"The Ford Conservatives did an excellent job of making their proposed budget sound good, but it misses the mark taking the action we need now," said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario.

"There is no new money for public health when we need their important work now more than ever, or for municipalities that are struggling to provide critical services communities rely on,” said Hahn. “When 581 schools have outbreaks, there is no new money for our schools to keep our kids and education workers safe. And with all the pronouncements about fixing Long Term Care, we need to see the proof that the funding will actually be there for this important work."

Meanwhile, Unifor declared the budget "sets an underwhelming path to economic recovery" and called for more investments in critical infrastructure, "from childcare and health care to telecommunications and manufacturing."

It also questioned whether the government is up to the task of implementing the four hours of hands-on care promise, given the lack of funding for it in the budget — something the official opposition and many health-care associations and unions raised concerns about as well.

"When will this government introduce a $15 an hour minimum wage, paid sick leave, smaller class sizes and affordable, public child care?" said Unifor Ontario regional director Naureen Rizvi in a statement. 

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) said the budget takes a "head in the sand approach" to COVID-19, rather than "tackling [it] head-on." "The legacy of this budget will be its failure to prioritize the needs of the people of Ontario—robust public service investment, safety, and immediate income supports needed to get through this second wave of COVID-19," the OFL said.

“Instead of investing to protect the people of Ontario, especially our seniors, or ensuring our schools are safe, the Ford government seems more concerned about tax cuts to employers, and improved access to booze and gambling,” said OFL President Patty Coates.

The OFL also bemoaned the steps the government is taking to add "enforcement tools" to its wage-cap legislation as well as the lack of immediate action on long-term care staffing.

“Ford sells himself to Ontarians as the ‘friend of working people premier,’ routinely noting ‘everything is on the table.’ But, when given the opportunity to table a budget that ensures Ontarians will be safe—he chose instead—to duck under the table," said Coats.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and its president, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, took a different tack than their peers—they released a statement describing the budget as "a good start down the right path."

"I know it isn't easy to lead a province through a pandemic, and I congratulate the government for the balanced approach they're taking," said Thomas. "While it's easy to throw stones, we look forward to working with them to ensure the budget's vision of strong public services is realized."

That said, the union called on the government to repeal its wage-cap legislation and end "the expensive practice of privatization."

Health care

The Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO) was among the unions and associations that condemned the budget, saying it "is deeply concerned with a Fall 2020 budget that shows signs of a government tiring of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic."

"In the midst of a ferocious resurgence, what is needed is a budget that reflects the urgency of our circumstances and the need to protect the health, economic and social well-being of Ontarians – especially those who are most vulnerable to the devastating impacts of this virus," said the group.

Of particular concern to the RNAO was the lack of funding for the government's promise to ensuring nursing home residents get an average of four hours of hands-on care, as it will require significant funding to implement.

"There is no excuse for postponing the urgently needed staffing increase in the province's nursing homes," said RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth. "The government says it supports a minimum of four worked hours per resident, per day as necessary for the health and well-being of nursing home residents, but its timetable to act on this promise will only lead to more preventable deaths. We can't – and shouldn't have to – wait more than four years to meet minimum safety standards for this province's most vulnerable seniors," says Hoffarth.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) also stressed that funding must flow immediately. Overall, the group said the budget "does not go nearly far enough to immediately address the vital issues that are needed to keep Ontarians healthy and safe."

The group noted there is no new health-care funding within this budget and said that the funding announced for hospitals — more than $500 million — won't cover their existing debts from the toll of the first wave of COVID-19.

However, the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) welcomed the support the sector received.

"Over the last nine months, hospitals have played a crucial anchor role in this pandemic, delivering life-saving care, opening assessment centres, conducting lab testing and assisting system partners facing outbreaks. These efforts have come at an historic financial cost, and hospitals have also suffered heavy losses in key revenue streams," said president and CEO Anthony Dale.

The sector is facing a potential forecast deficit of at least $2 billion in 2020-21, primarily a result of their role in fighting the pandemic, he said.

"Yesterday's budget directly acknowledges the significant financial pressure facing hospitals and reaffirms the government's commitment to supporting them and stabilizing their financial position through the remainder of this fiscal year," he said, adding that the OHA appreciates that the province is maintaining contingency funds to respond to the pandemic through the remainder of the year.

"Ontario's health-care system, economy and citizens have had to deal with circumstances that were unimaginable a year ago," Dale continued. "Now, with Ontario projecting a $38.5 billion deficit, it is time for a serious national discussion on strengthening our health care system. As we've said before, the Government of Canada and provincial governments must come together to overhaul our system of transfer payments and to strengthen our country's ability to fund health services throughout this pandemic and into the future."

Meanwhile, the Ontario Long-Term Care Association (OLTCA), which represents 70 per cent of the province’s long-term care homes, was more optimistic and said the provincial government is "illustrating its leadership" by making the commitment of four hours of hands-on care.

"Right now, long-term care homes need support on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19," said CEO Donna Duncan. " Investments in testing capacity, wage enhancements, among other critical measures, support retention and recruitment efforts while keeping our seniors healthy and safe."

Meanwhile, the Canadian Mental Health Association provincial budget falls short of supporting the mental health of Ontarians. CEO Camille Quenneville said that even though the pandemic has had a profound effect on Ontarians' mental health, the budget contained no new funding.

“Exactly one week ago, on Oct. 29, the premier told reporters that the mental health of Ontarians is his government’s number one priority. But judging from today’s budget, that’s not the case," she said.

“The most significant thing the government can do at this time is to help correct the decades of systemic underfunding in our sector and abide by its campaign promise to invest $3.8 billion over 10 years in mental health and addictions," she said, adding that the sector has asked that this money flow at $380 million annually, which has yet to happen.

Education

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario noted the budget "delivered no new funding to ensure students have safe schools and the education supports they need."

“School boards and educators went into this school year with a chaotic, underfunded return to school plan from the Ontario government and this budget has done nothing to change that situation,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond. “Ford and Education Minister [Stephen] Lecce have abandoned parents and educators who are left to ensure that students have what they need under extremely challenging conditions.”

“Parents have consistently said they want smaller classes and this government isn’t listening. The government must rethink its approach to public education and invest appropriately in the education and future of our students,” said Hammond.

The budget included $7 million over three years to produce online elementary educational content for elementary grades, and Hammond said that "pales in comparison to what is really needed to ensure students are getting the quality public education they need from teachers via face-to-face and virtual classes.”

Meanwhile, 'L'Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) President Anne Vinet-Roy was more cautious in her response but said the government start collaborating with education unions and finally take their recommendations about school safety in COVID-19 into account.

AEFO would have liked to have seen the shortage of teaching staff address and an improvement of mental health services for young Francophones and education staff at least mentioned in the budget.

But the Ontario College of Teachers welcomed the budget legislation.

The changes mean teachers and early childhood educators disciplined for sexual abuse or child pornography will be barred from classrooms permanently. It also modernizes the college's governance structure, ending the elections the college said suffered from low-participation. Instead, "council and committee members will be selected from a diverse group of individuals, including members of the profession, with attributes and competencies to govern the teaching profession in the public interest," the college said.

Energy

The government was praised by the Ontario Energy Association (OEA) for its new policy to lower electricity bills for Ontario's medium-sized and larger industrial and commercial electricity consumers, by shifting some costs from green energy contracts on to the tax base.

"Relieving commercial and industrial employers of a significant portion of non-hydro renewable energy generation costs will definitely help them recover from extremely difficult economic times and create jobs," said president and CEO Vince Brescia.

The environment

Meanwhile, Environmental Defence raised the alarm that "legal changes hidden in the budget show the Ontario government is accelerating its attack on the environment on behalf of developer and industry interests at the expense of the public and future generations."

Those changes would create a mechanism to override the decisions of Conservation Authorities regarding the protection of wetlands, woodlands, endangered species habitats and flood protection and give a permanent exemption of the forest industry from compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the group said.

"The Ontario government is busy taking apart 75 years of progress in preventing and mitigating the impacts of flooding, preserving forests, wetlands and protecting our sources of clean drinking water,” said Tim Gray, Executive Director of Environmental Defence. "Replacing the science-based decisions of Conversation Authorities with political ones that serve developer interests is a recipe for disaster."

Tourism

The budget's plan to encourage Ontarians to take a staycation was a hit with the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO). Beth Potter, president and CEO, welcomed the fall budget and its measures for the sector.

“TIAO is pleased (to) hear the Ontario Government address the tourism industry so significantly in today’s 2020 Ontario budget announcement,” said Potter.

She said the association is “delighted” with the government’s plan to help Ontarians with up to 20 per cent of eligible tourism expenses in 2021, though details of the program haven’t been announced.

“This is a tax credit for Ontarians to spend dollars s they might have done abroad, locally, whilst we rebuild consumer confidence and support local businesses,” said Potter, adding that the association has been advocating for this since the beginning of the pandemic.

Infrastructure

The Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO) issued a statement supporting the province's call on the federal government to provide an additional $10 billion per year over 10 years for shovel ready projects and called on the two levels of government to work together.

“Municipalities are putting off numerous infrastructure maintenance and repair projects that were scheduled to go ahead this fall because COVID-19 has strained local finances,” said RCCAO executive director Andy Manahan. “Local governments of all sizes need a strong signal that funding will be in place soon so investments in transportation systems, bridges and other capital works can proceed.”

Meanwhile, the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON) applauded the Ontario government "for its strong focus on a skilled trades strategy and digital innovation," as well as its investment in the Black Youth Action Plan and its focus on mental health.

“Reducing barriers to development by cutting red tape, simplifying policies and modernizing and digitizing government services to streamline the approvals process is critical to increasing housing supply necessary to support demographic trends and improve quality of life,” said RESCON president Richard Lyall. “We have had a chronic undersupply of housing for a generation which has driven up costs.”

Through the government’s Skilled Trades Strategy, the budget also focuses on key themes that are crucial to enabling the trades to be considered a viable employment option for the next generation, such as simplifying the apprenticeship system and related career pathways as well as encouraging greater employer participation.

“We are heartened to see the government commit such extensive resources to the skilled trades in Ontario,” said Lyall. “This is a reflection of the province’s understanding of the importance of construction and the need for sufficient skilled trades supply over the next decade to facilitate the economic recovery and success of Ontario.”

Seniors

There's a tax credit just for seniors in the budget, but A New Vision of Aging (also known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons) wasn't happy, declaring that the fiscal plan puts businesses before seniors.

The group worries that the immediate needs of older adults were pushed to the background, as the budget "lacks a plan to address the province’s lack of accessible home care and community care services, which are vital to allowing seniors to age safely in place," it said.

“What we saw was a strong focus on long-lead economics to the exclusion of real people at immediate risk,” says Bill VanGorder, Chief Policy Officer at C.A.R.P. “We’ve put forth a strong agenda of shorter-term actions that would meaningfully improve the lives of seniors in Ontario and it’s disappointing to see so few of them reflected in this budget.”

Insurance

The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) praised the budget, saying its members "are especially pleased to see the government's commitment to improving the consumer experience for Ontario drivers through measures like allowing a fully digital auto insurance experience for Ontario drivers."

"During these uncertain times, the Ford government continues to show its adaptability and support for auto insurance consumers," said IBC Ontario Vice-President Kim Donaldson. "Today's budget removes barriers for insurers who are committed to offering the innovative products that consumers are accustomed to receiving from other sectors. In addition, the budget fosters innovation by allowing insurers to bring new products to market that help drivers control their premiums, while also acknowledging a growing demand for a fully digital experience and removing restrictions on usage-based insurance products."

-With files from Sneh Duggal and Jack Hauen

Jessica Smith Cross

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