News / Toronto

Ontario auditor not satisfied after panel's report on $10.7B pension dispute

TORONTO — Ontario's auditor general is not satisfied after an expert panel sided with the Liberal government in a $10.7-billion accounting dispute.

The auditor and the government disagree over whether a $10.7-billion surplus in two jointly sponsored pension plans — the Ontario Public Service Employees Union Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan — should appear as an asset on the government's books.

Auditor general Bonnie Lysyk says that because the government doesn't have the right to unilaterally access that surplus, it shouldn't count as an asset.

But an expert panel this week said that it is an asset because it has a future economic benefit, since the government could reduce contributions and would therefore have additional funds to spend elsewhere.

Lysyk now says in order for her to issue a clean audit opinion, she wants to see a letter from the unions representing workers covered by the plans saying the province can use that money.

"Show me the letter that says you can use that pension money with permission, with an agreement," she said Thursday. "Until that happens the bottom line is this office can't give its stamp of approval on this particular issue."

The government says joint pension agreements already spell out how surpluses are to be handled and no additional letter is needed, so it is sticking with the panel's interpretation of the accounting rules.

That interpretation gives the government $1.5 billion in breathing room in the deficit and means that $10.7 billion doesn't get added to the already more than $300-billion debt.

This is not the first time the Liberal government has clashed with the auditor general — the former energy minister suggested the electricity file was too complicated for Lysyk, and she has frequently suggested that partisan ads are being funded by taxpayer dollars.

But Lysyk insisted Thursday this was not an auditor versus government issue.

"This isn't about this office and this isn't about me," she said. "It's not my money. That money is for the benefit of employees and retirees who have paid in to be able to live a comfortable life in retirement."