Minister says infrastructure work will pay off
Sousa met with members of the Burlington, Oakville and Milton chambers of commerce
BURLINGTON — For two years Ontario has been pouring money into new roads, GO services, Toronto subways and Internet service for rural areas.
The pace of spending has been blistering, and Ontario’s Finance Minister says it’s going to continue.
Charles Sousa told a joint meeting of the Burlington, Milton and Oakville chambers of commerce Thursday the work of rebooting the province’s economy isn’t finished yet.
“Ontario was in the middle of a fragile post-recession recovery when we took over,” Sousa told the business audience.
“In the past, an investment like we have been making would have been followed by a long ‘shovels down’ period, but we’re just getting started.”
Sousa said the Wynne government’s 12-year, $160-billion program of infrastructure and climate change investment is critical to preparing the economy for the future.
“I know some people would prefer we left action on climate change to the next generation because they think there’s no immediate threat to them,” he said. “We have to act now because we owe it to that next generation.”
In addition to pouring money into physical assets such as roads and bridges, the government action plan includes investments in people — such as a controversial plan to provide free post-secondary tuition to low-income students.
“We know that education is the most important way to break the cycle of poverty,” Sousa said.
In addition to all of that, he added, the province will balance its books next year, eliminating a deficit that has been a drag on the economy for years.
“The growth we have today cannot come at the expense of tomorrow,” he said. “That’s why we are going to balance the books next year.”
In a question-and-answer session after his formal presentation, Sousa said the deficit will be eliminated by disciplined spending.
“We are going to go through the budget line by line to ensure we are spending effectively.”
Ontario’s deficit-to-gross domestic product ratio sits at 39 per cent. That compares favourably to 50 per cent for Quebec and more than 80 per cent in some European countries, but Sousa said the goal is still to cut that number to 27 per cent.
He said a major economic problem remaining for the Greater Toronto Area is the cost of traffic congestion — something the government will try to tackle through high-occupancy vehicle toll lanes.
In an interview after the session, Sousa said the government continues to watch developments in the Stelco and Algoma steel restructurings closely.
The government recently announced a $2.6-million top-up to a fund to help local retirees deal with losing their drug benefits.
“They are in the midst of looking for proponents to bid for Stelco as well as Algoma. We’ll see what happens, but in the meantime we recognize that the pensioners and workers need to be supported and that’s what we’ve done,” he said. “We’re working with what we have available to us.”
Ontario’s stake in the restructuring is huge — it is owed $150 million loaned to Stelco in 2006 to top up its pension plans.
There is also millions of dollars in pension top-ups at stake if the company is liquidated with its plans still in deficit. That’s all in addition to environmental liabilities for the company’s bayfront land.
“We recognize that when U.S. Steel came into play, there was an environmental liability and we did step up to try to support them in that transition. They’ve not performed to our satisfaction,” he said. “We have that liability and we are trying to protect the interest of the province and the workers.”
Sousa returns to the area Monday, when he is to hold a closeddoor meeting with about 20 members of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce.
The growth we have today cannot come at the expense of tomorrow. That’s why we are going to balance the books next year. CHARLES SOUSA ONTARIO FINANCE MINISTER
Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa says traffic congestion remains a problem in the GTA.