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Ontario budget 2016: Mixed reaction from health-care, student groups

Posted: February 25, 2016

(February 25, 2016)

By: Shanifa Nasser, CBC News

A budget can’t be balanced on sheer faith,’ Canadian Taxpayers Federation says

Free college and university tuition for low-income families, a new climate change fighting cap-and-trade system and a projected drop in the deficit by nearly $2 billion dollars were among the highlights in Thursday’s provincial budget announcement.

That prompted mixed reaction from health, student and finance groups who saw in the budget everything from a “train wreck” to “sweeping improvements.”

Here’s a survey of initial reaction from the Ontario Health Coalition, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Toronto Financial Services Alliance.

On hospitals:

After a four-year freeze in base funding for hospitals, the Ontario Health Coalition says it welcomes the province’s announcement of a $60 million increase for hospital budgets this year, but the coalition says the funds are not nearly enough to stop what it calls the erosion of patient care and services across Ontario.

“Today’s announcement is one small step, but there is still a long way to go to,” said board member Sara Labelle.

The organization points to “significant and damaging cuts” in Ontario hospitals including slashing hospital beds, services, and a greater number of complicated cases at long-term care homes. Hospitals in Toronto, Hamilton, Windsor and Kitchener announced layoffs of more than 500 registered nurses in the first few weeks of 2016 alone.

Those cuts are resulting in more health care privatization and contributing to a two-tier system, the coalition says.

“Ontario’s larger town hospitals are now the most dangerously overcrowded of any jurisdiction in the developed world,” it said in a release.

“We need to continue to hold their feet to the fire, and demand that services are restored,” Labelle said.

On student financial assistance:

The province’s move to slash provincial debt for college and university students from families making less than $50,000 is a welcome development to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA).

“These are sweeping improvements that will dramatically improve financial aid for our students,” said OUSA president Spencer Nestico-Semianiw.

The organization, which represents the interests of over 140,000 full and part-time Ontario university students at seven member associations, said in a release that it is also pleased to see the removal of tuition and education tax credits.

“Tax credits did not provide assistance when students needed it, and they diverted aid money to those who did not need the help,” Nestico-Semianiw said.

In addition to the newly announced Ontario Student Grant (OSG), the association said it welcomes what it calls the simplicity of the new grant programs.

“University education is now more affordable, and more students will know it,” said Nestico-Semianiw.

On fiscal targets:

The Toronto Financial Services Alliance said Thursday it supports the province maintaining its target to balance the budget by 2017-18 and delaying the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) by one year.

“It is critical that they stick to their fiscal targets and we strongly encourage them to focus on lowering the province’s debt-to-GDP ratio,” said TFSA president and CEO Janet Ecker in a release.

The association said it welcomes the 12-year, $160 billion infrastructure investment and urges the government to expand the use of public-private partnerships for long-term infrastructure projects.

Ecker also said she was pleased that the budget acknowledged the need “to foster a homegrown innovation ecosystem,” which it said will be a key step to promoting jobs and growth.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), meanwhile, said it was “troubled” at budget projections for over $300 billion in debt.

“The government’s long-term plan outlined in the 2016 budget will never lead to a balanced budget,” said CTF Ontario director Christine Van Geyn. “Where Mr. Sousa is getting his projections is a mystery. His budget assumes unrealistic growth rates. A budget can’t be balanced on sheer faith.”

The federation pointed to a number of tax hikes, including a projected 4.3 cent per litre increase in the cost of gasoline as a result of the cap-and-trade plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a $5 per month increase in the cost of natural gas for home heating.

“The fiscal train wreck in Ontario needs to end,”  Van Geyn said.

The CTF also pointed to a five per cent increase on the markup on wine over the next three years, as well as a one per cent hike in the wine tax on imported wine.

“Commuters in Ontario already pay high taxes at the pump, and this gas tax hike will make life in this province even more unaffordable,” said Van Geyn.

“And now we can’t even find solace about the state of the province’s economy in a nice glass of wine, because the premier is hiking the tax on that too.”

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