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Ontario's balanced budget called a 'shell game' by critics as watchdog predicts deficits

Ontario’s financial accountability officer Stephen LeClair warns again that the province will see more deficits in the future despite promises of a balanced budget.

While Ontario's financial accountability officer Stephen LeClair acknowledges the Liberal government can balance the budget this fiscal year, thanks, in part, to strong tax revenue growth, he warns the next five years won’t be so easy.

(Richard Brennan / Toronto Star file photo)

While Ontario's financial accountability officer Stephen LeClair acknowledges the Liberal government can balance the budget this fiscal year, thanks, in part, to strong tax revenue growth, he warns the next five years won’t be so easy.

Ontario’s financial watchdog is ringing the alarm bell again about continued budget deficits despite repeat promises from Premier Kathleen Wynne that the books are balanced in time for next June’s election.

While Ontario’s financial accountability officer Stephen LeClair acknowledges the Liberal government can balance the budget this fiscal year, thanks, in part, to strong tax revenue growth, he warns the next five years won’t be so easy.

Deficits could hit $6.5 billion by 2022 and the province’s net debt soar $76 billion to more than $390 billion.

“Beyond 2017-18, the deficit is projected to deteriorate steadily due to rising expenses and moderate revenue growth,” LeClair wrote in his spring economic outlook, released Wednesday.

“On this basis, it’s unlikely the government will balance the budget without significant fiscal policy adjustments,” he added, hinting at the need for spending cuts or revenue increases.

Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters at the YWCA that she is confident of balanced budgets for three years, but would not go beyond that.

“We have brought in a balanced budget, the first balanced budget in almost a decade. And we’re committed to balancing the budget through 2020.”

LeClair forecasts that strong economic growth of 2.4 per cent this calendar year will slow to 2 per cent in the subsequent four years.

That is in line with government forecasts, but he raised concerns that the policy direction of the Trump administration, which wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is “uncertain” and “could hamper business investment and Ontario’s economic prospects.”

The housing market, which surged over the winter, before cooling somewhat in recent weeks, “continues to be the largest risk for the economy. A sharp correction in housing prices could reverberate beyond the housing market and lead to broader, economy-wide impacts,” LeClair added.

Progressive Conservatives said the financial accountability officer’s report is proof the government’s spring budget was “a shell game” as Wynne campaigns to keep her job.

“The Liberals are cooking the books before the next election,” said Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli, his party’s finance critic.

“To fix the mess they’ve created, after the election, the Liberals will go back to raising your taxes, cutting your healthcare, and we already know they’ll be hiking hydro bills.”

The financial accountability officer said the debt will balloon by $76 billion from the continued deficits, capital spending and the auditor general’s recommended accounting treatment for pension assets, with which the government disagrees.

As a result, LeClair projects Ontario’s ratio of net debt to gross domestic product will exceed 40 per cent by the 2020-21 fiscal year, which, he said, is “well above” the government’s interim target of lowering it to 35 per cent by the 2023-24 fiscal year.

Last winter, the government disagreed with Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk that the government could not count $10.7 billion of taxpayer-funded pension surpluses as assets on the province’s books, as it has since 2001.

Treasury Board President Liz Sandals said the government is taking the advice of Tricia O’Malley, chair of the Canadian Actuarial Standards Oversight Council.

Lysyk argued that the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, which the government co-sponsors, shouldn’t be booked as assets because the government does not have ready access to the funds.

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