Laid-off workers, the poor and manufacturers are getting a helping hand from the provincial government.
Ontario's economy "is being buffeted by a number of challenges," Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said yesterday as he unveiled the Liberal government's first budget since its re-election in October.
"We know certain sectors, some communities and too many families are not sharing in Ontario's prosperity," Duncan said. "A slowing U.S. economy, rising oil prices and a higher-than-anticipated Canadian dollar are reducing growth forecasts and creating greater uncertainty here in Ontario."
So, Duncan introduced a three-year $1.5 billion Skills to Jobs Action Plan. The plan will train unemployed workers for new careers, expand apprenticeships, build more spaces in colleges and universities and help students with education costs.
Priscilla McKenzie could qualify for the retraining plan. The single mother, laid off a few weeks ago from her $35-an-hour assembler job at the Chrysler plant in Brampton, said it could help her. But she wonders where new jobs will come from.
"What are these specific sectors which are going to have these good paying jobs? It's hard to replace the high-paying job that I had."
Duncan proposed other measures to encourage a "more productive, competitive and greener economy" in the face of economic growth in the province projected to be only 1.1 per cent this year.
He confirmed that the government will introduce a $1 billion infrastructure program already announced by Premier Dalton McGuinty, including $497 million for public transit in the GTA.
The budget also includes $750 million over four years in business tax breaks, including retroactively eliminating the capital tax for manufacturers as of Jan. 1, 2007.
Duncan also announced a one-year, $100 million plan to upgrade the province's aging social housing buildings.
And he set aside $10 million for a pilot program to help low-income Ontarians save for an education or start a business.
The $96.2 billion spending plan tabled in the Legislature neither raised any taxes nor offered tax relief for most individual Ontarians.
The budget surplus for 2007-08 (the fiscal year ending March 31) is $600 million. Last week, Duncan announced that if the surplus reached $800 million, $600 million would go to help pay down the $162.3 billion debt, with the rest divided among Ontario municipalities for more infrastructure spending.
If the surplus increases to $800 million once the government adds up all the revenue it gets this summer, cities and towns would share in $200 million, with the City of Toronto receiving $40 million.
"There is a good likelihood that there will be additional money available," Duncan told reporters.
The retraining program would help 20,000 laid-off workers, Duncan said. Statistics Canada has reported that 77,000 Ontario manufacturing jobs have been lost from 2001 to 2006.
"The plan will strengthen long-term economic productivity, while stimulating investment and job growth today, and move us to a greener, more sustainable future," he said, noting economic growth for this year is forecast at a worryingly low 1.1 per cent but should jump to 2.8 per cent by 2010.
"Most importantly, our people will be training in areas where growing industries are experiencing a shortage of workers."
Ignoring federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's call Monday to slash Ontario's corporate income taxes, Duncan said he opted to invest in human capital.
"It is a balanced approach that is prudent and pragmatic," he said in a shot at Flaherty, who insists tax cuts pay for themselves by stimulating economic activity.
On poverty issues, Duncan confirmed Premier Dalton McGuinty's announcement from last week of $135 million over three years for a free dental-care program for the working poor, and $32 million over the same period for student nutrition programs in schools and community centres.
As well, social assistance benefits are being increased by 2 per cent, slightly more than the inflation rate.
The budget provides $385 million over three years for student grants to buy textbooks and computers, and $27 million to help students in remote areas with travel expenses.
Duncan, whose Windsor-area riding has been battered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, reiterated the oft-stated but yet unrealized promise to improve the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, North America's busiest trade corridor.
He also announced that author Richard Florida, professor of business and creativity at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Rotman dean Roger Martin would study Ontario's workforce with an eye toward enhancing competitiveness.
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory dismissed the budget as too little too late for Ontario's struggling economy, charging that the Liberals are "ignoring the warning signs."
"Ontario's economy is in trouble," said Tory, who echoed Flaherty's call for lower corporate taxes to stimulate the economy and chastised the Liberals for overtaxing Ontarians by $5 billion more than anticipated.
"Whether they are farmers or business people, families or public servants, people are worried," he said.
"Canada's economic engine is stalling, but (Premier Dalton) McGuinty thinks a one-time trip to the carwash will get it going."
NDP Leader Howard Hampton said it was "a half-baked budget that offers up small-potato solutions to Ontario's pressing problems."
Hampton said the anti-poverty measures were "an embarrassment," noting the Liberals are continuing the clawback of the national child tax benefit, which hurts poor families.
"Dalton McGuinty is offering Ontarians scraps from his kitchen table. Ontarians starving for solutions from their government deserve far better," he said.
"This budget effectively leaves them to fend for themselves."