We take a close look at transit, housing, and social services.
Kathleen Wynne’s government has proposed a budget that preserves the status quo on the province’s infrastructure projects, provides some relief on pocketbook issues, and increases revenues in some other areas.
The government was eager to highlight populist pocketbook initiatives during today’s budget launch, including free post-secondary tuition for low-income students, an elimination of the Drive Clean fee, and decreased hospital parking fees.
While the province plans to forego $60 million in Drive Clean revenue and put a cap on hospital parking fees, it also seeks to increase revenue through a new cap and trade policy that could be worth up to $2 billion annually, and will likely be a contentious issue as the budget gets debated.
We went through the budget to explain the new proposals and policies, and how the budget affects Toronto.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa stated that Ontario’s economy is strong in spite of economic uncertainty, and highlighted investments in infrastructure, education, and healthcare as ways that the government is investing in the province.
However, in the absence of significant new spending announcements this year as the government struggles to reduce its debt, many new budget initiatives focus on everyday issues with a populist appeal.
- Provide what amounts to free tuition to Ontario post-secondary students where the household income is less than $50,000.
- Eliminating the $30 annual Drive Clean fee, which affects 2 million vehicles annually. Drive Clean emissions test will remain mandatory.
- A daily cap on hospital parking fees, and mandatory discounts for multi-day passes.
However, the budget also contains a number of increased fees in other areas, including a new cap and trade proposal that could be worth billions.
Asked by a journalist whether the budget was giving with one hand and taking with another, Finance Minister Charles Sousa responded, “We are investing in one hand and ensuring you reap the rewards of what we sow.”
Opposition Leader Patrick Brown did not see the budget the same way, and argued that, “life is harder under the liberals. Things are about to get much more expensive for the people of Ontario and this government isn’t providing the services taxpayers are paying for.”
Here’s a look at what the budget has in store for transit, housing, and social services, and how many times specific keywords earned a shoutout in the 345-page document.
The provincial government previously announced $16 billion in funding for GTHA transit projects, and that continues with the 2016 budget proposal.
Much of the transit portion of the budget focuses on Regional Express Rail, a $13.5 billion investment meant to “quadruple the number of weekly trips from about 1,500 to nearly 6,000 trips.”
The expansion of GO RER focuses on service frequency to increase the capacity of regional rail travel, and a number of those projects are already underway.
According to the budget document, these include:
- An environmental assessment for system-wide electrification on GO RER
- Double track to Unionville on the Stouffville corridor
- Passing track from York University to Rutherford Road on the Barrie corridor
- Union Station signal system upgrades
There are fewer mentions of SmartTrack in the provincial budget.
In the one paragraph that focuses on John Tory’s signature policy priority, the budget says:
The Province and Metrolinx have been working closely with the City of Toronto to provide input into, and ensure coordination between, the City’s SmartTrack plan and how it fits with the implementation of Regional Express Rail. These discussions also include the consideration of the City’s proposed Eglinton East Light Rail Transit and new Scarborough subway alignment. The SmartTrack funding proposal entails substantial contributions in new captal and operating funding from partners, including the City of Toronto and the federal government.
The budget categorizes SmartTrack as “proceeding only if new partner funding is provided. Timing to be determined,” a reference to the City’s lack of a funding plan for the project.
Other GTA transit projects that earned a mention in the budget include:
- The Toronto Relief Line
- Finch West LRT
- Yonge North Subway Extension
- Durham-Scarborough Bus Rapid Transit
- Dundas Street Bus Rapid Transit that links Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville and Burlington.
Projects that did not earn a mention include the Sheppard LRT, and the Waterfront LRT.
The provincial government has earmarked $178 million in new funding over the next three years for housing subsidies and benefits, a 16 per cent boost to existing annual commitments of about $370 million.
Of the new funding, $45 million of funding will be spread over three years for Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI). The program helps about 2,600 individuals and families experiencing homelessness to find housing, and supports homeless prevention for about 14,200 households.
Another $2.4 million new dollars is allocated to help 500 families who are fleeing domestic violence find housing in 2016-2017.
The budget proposal does not specify how the remaining $130 million would be spent, but provincial officials tell Torontoist details should roll out over the next few months.
The province carefully outlines the 12 creative housing initiatives it has helped fund since 2014.
Missing from those initiatives is the requested support for Toronto Community Housing, which has been counting on the province to pitch in for repairs on its deteriorating social housing stock. The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) has a 10-year plan to tackle its capital repair backlog priced at $2.6 billion, of which the city has already committed $915 million. TCHC and City Council have repeatedly asked Ottawa and the province each to contribute one-third of the bill, or nearly $90 million per year. Despite intense lobbying efforts, neither order of government has made a commitment.
The lack of support from other orders of government leaves Toronto with a massive financial burden. Ontario is the only province where social housing is a municipal responsibility, and Toronto has the second largest social housing portfolio in North America. That leaves the City struggling to house its most vulnerable residents—a responsibility that no other local government in Canada, or the developed world for that matter, has to deal with.
The province’s new affordable housing funding for alI of Ontario is much less than what Toronto alone needs in support. Without sufficient funding from the provincial and federal government, 7,500 subsidized households will be shuttered by 2021, and 12,000 by 2023. The city boarded up 350 TCHC homes in 2014.
The funding Toronto is asking the province for would help repair the City’s aging housing stock from becoming inhabitable for its 163,000 tenants. This funding would not address the TCHC’s other backlog, a 92,000-long waitlist for subsidized housing which can take more than seven years.
In announcing structural changes to community housing last month, John Tory assured Torontonians “help is on the way” from the provincial government, but it’s not to be seen in this year’s budget.
Ontario’s proposed 2016 budget preserves the status quo for the province’s social services. There aren’t big changes or substantial investment, but there aren’t any major cuts either; much of what’s touted in the budget isn’t new. But the budget does provide an opportunity to look at the context for Ontario’s social services, and how services affect residents across the province.
In the mid-’90s the Harris government slashed Ontario Works rates by 22 per cent, and OW and ODSP rates were frozen for the next eight years. In 2003, the newly-elected McGuinty government began implementing small annual increases. So people on OW and ODSP are *still* falling behind relative to the cost of living, but not by as much as they were. However, there are some promising (if still vague) new developments.
Clawing back clawbacks: Right now, if someone on OW or ODSP gets child support payments, their social assistance payment is reduced by the same amount. This means there’s no incentive for a parent to seek or pay child support, because it won’t actually increase household income.
Over the years, the provincial government has relaxed clawback amounts and asset limits to get rid of this paradoxical disincentive. Now, they plan on adjusting the rules about child support clawbacks not just for low-income people, but also for the government. The cost of social services and benefits is considerable. Perhaps everyone would be happier if the government simply cut out the middleman and gave everyone enough to live on.
The last time anyone in Canada actually tried this was a basic income experiment in the 1970s, in a small town in Manitoba. In the face of an increasingly precarious labour market and high cost of living, the provincial government plans on designing its own pilot project. However, hard numbers and a timeline have yet to materialize.
Autism services: Actual numbers! An actual timespan! Over the next five years, $333 million is going towards redesigning the system in order to improve early intervention for children and youth.
Drugs for old people: Come August, more senior Ontarians will qualify for the Ontario Drug Benefit Program, which helps cover prescription costs. The income cut-off is being raised from $16,018 to $19,300 for singles and $24,175 to $32,300 for couples. (Naturally, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The co-pays are increasing slightly as well.)
In addition, seniors between 65 and 70 will now be able to get the shingles vaccine, which costs about $170 out of pocket, for free. 71-year-olds: you’re out of luck. Maybe next year.
Budget mentions, by the numbers:
Cap and trade: 57
Beer or wine: 41
Underground economy: 23
Disruptive/Disruption/Disrupt: 13 (the previous four years had five combined mentions)