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Here’s what to expect from Ontario’s not-quite-a-budget, as COVID-19 throws economy off track

As Ontario reels from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and braces for the impact on the health system, the Ford government will lay out the bare bones of a budget on Wednesday.

The province has already earmarked more than $660 million to help Ontarians cope with the new reality that the coronavirus has created. That includes a boost to hospitals facing increased demands for beds and a break on hydro rates to make working from home less costly.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips is expected to reveal more support for the health system and businesses when he tables his one-year spending plan during an emergency session of the legislature on Wednesday afternoon.

“There will obviously be a significant focus on the response to COVID-19 and the health care components of that,” Phillips told a news conference on Tuesday.

However, Phillips and Premier Doug Ford both signalled the fiscal update is unlikely to include a major economic stimulus package.

“It’s going to be the most prudent statement that any finance minister in Ontario has ever made, said Phillips. He said his mini-budget will “first and foremost” be about ensuring the health sector has the resources it needs to handle COVID-19.

The budget measures to be announced Wednesday will be just “phase one” of the province’s actions, said Ford. He emphasized that the federal government is leading the way on providing support to individuals who are losing wages as various sectors of Canada’s economy shut down.

There will be “support to businesses” announced in the update, Phillips said, but did not go into detail.

The mini-budget will come on the first day that businesses and services deemed non-essential must close their doors across the province, a new order issued under the state of emergency declared last week.

It’s impossible right now to predict the long-term effects of COVID-19 on Ontario’s economy, said Phillips, so his fiscal update will not include any multi-year projections on the government’s deficit, which currently stands at $9 billion.

He is promising a more thorough budget by November, “when hopefully the dust is cleared and we have a better sense of things.”

Until the pandemic changed everything, Ontario was expecting 1.7 per cent growth in GDP for the coming year. On Monday, Scotiabank forecast the province’s economy will instead retract by 2.2 per cent — a recession that could deepen if emergency measures extend longer than foreseen.

That whiplash-quick nosedive would mean the disappearance of roughly $3 billion in annual revenue for the government, according to estimates Phillips gave two weeks ago. But the impact is almost certain to be far higher.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a relatively ‘perfect storm’ against the government’s books,” says an analysis published Tuesday by Toronto-based government relations firm Strategy Corp. “Given the near cessation of activity in large parts of the economy, the government will see a significant decrease in total taxation revenue in 2020-21.”

Strategy Corp. predicts a 48 per cent drop “at least” in corporate tax revenue, which would zap $7.7 billion from the provincial treasury. To put that in context: it’s equal to roughly one-third of the annual budget for the school system.

Some financial measures promised so far by the Ford government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • $200 million for municipalities and social service providers in their work with vulnerable populations
  • $100 million for increased capacity in hospitals
  • $50 million for more testing and screening through public health
  • lowering all residential and small-business hydro prices to the off-peak rate, a measure that will cost $160 million

CBC

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