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Ottawa, Mar 29 (Canadian-Media): Ontario's latest budget of 2018 including billions in new spending on a variety of issues was revealed by Ontario's Liberal government on Wednesday, media reports said.
Liberal government's high-profile announcements made in recent days, the latest of which included $2.2 billion pledged to make preschool free for children aged 2-and-a-half years to four, free prescription drugs for seniors costing $575 million and a total of $2.1 billion for mental health services expansion.
Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa reportedly admitted the province would return to deficit to pay for it all, after running a $600 million surplus this year.
"We balanced the budget and we have a surplus. Now we have a choice," Sousa said to reporters.
"People are saying, 'We still need more support.' So we made a choice to provide more supports."
A number priority items including reportedly major investments in healthcare, pharmacare and free licensed daycare for preschool-aged children would not come into effect until 2019 or later.
The key commitments from the 308-page budget presented below would only become a reality subject to the re-election of Liberal government in the spring election of June 7.
Liberals would provide Ontarians, who lacked workplace benefits regardless of income, with a new drug and dental plan for 4.1 million that pays up to 80 percent of expenses to a maximum of $400 for a single person, $600 per couple and $50 per child in a family of four with two kids.
A provision of $750 would be made to eligible households per year to help those 75 and older to maintain their home under a Seniors' Healthy Home Program which will cost $1 billion over three years.
For seniors in long-term care facilities, the Liberals plan to spend $300 million over three years to hire a registered nurse in every site in Ontario and provide an average of four hours of personal daily care for each resident by 2022.
There would be a 3 percent increase in rates for those living on Ontario Works the Ontario Disability Support Program. 47,000 eligible Ontarians living with disabilities will reportedly be provided with an amount of $5,000 annually to access care and services.
There would be new funding by the Liberal government for the province's vulnerable including the largest increase in social assistance payments in more than a decade.
A projection of three percent increase in rates for those depending on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program in each of the next three years, with the first increase set for the fall.
Liberals would spend $203 million on 350 community agencies to ensure their capacity to provide care.
$11 billion would reportedly be spent to begin work on a high-speed rail line from Toronto to Windsor, Ont. The government is also starting with the Toronto to London, Ont., connection and spend on integration of municipal services to create functioning regional networks.
$534 million would be spent on schools and 4,000 spaces in community centres to create 10,000 additional child care spaces.
There would be a personal income tax increase, for approximately 1.8 million people earning $71,500 or more annually, amounting to hundreds of dollars per year. However, some 680,000 people would pay less personal income tax.
$19 billion would reportedly be spent on hospital infrastructure and operations over the next decade including $2.4 billion for redevelopment of Toronto's SickKids hospital, and a $1.8 billion project at the Ottawa Hospital.
For building new schools and to improve existing ones, $16 billion in capital grants would reportedly be spent.
There would be an increase in Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) awards for students from low-income families (those who make less than $90,000 a year) and for Indigenous students. Tuition is free for those earning up to $90,000.
The Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation, a subsidiary of the LCBO, would reportedly lose $40 million in its first full year of operation.
By the 2020-21 fiscal year, it's expected to bring in a net income of $100 million.
There would be $4 dollar increase in the price of a carton of cigarettes. The change goes into effect at midnight.
GO Transit and UP Express trips within Toronto will be $3 for Presto users. GO Transit trips under 10 kilometres long will also be $3 across the entire Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA).
The Liberals also reportedly introduce a program to help cover costs of pharmaceutical drugs and dental care for Ontarians without workplace benefits, regardless of income or pre-existing OHIP+ coverage.
The Ontario Drug and Dental Program will reimburse 80 percent of eligible drugs and dental expenses, up to a maximum of $400 for a single person, $600 per couple or up to $700 for a family of four with two children, or $50 per child.
Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne already had reportedly committed to expanding the existing OHIP+ program to cover prescription drug costs for seniors 65 and over, a promise with a $575 million price tag.
The threshold for income that can be earned per month without affecting welfare payments will increase from $200 to $400 per month.
In all, the 2018 budget outlines $20.3 billion in new spending over three years that will put the province back into deficit after finally balancing the books last year.
The budget drew criticism from the opposition parties.
"God help us. We've seen this show before many times," Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford was reported to tell the reporters.
"The Liberals think they can buy your vote, and your vote is for sale. They proved it in this budget," he continued.
"People know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader Andrea Horwath called the budget "meager" and that it would not undo the damage done by the Liberals.
"The Liberals have had 15 years and instead of helping, they've only made things worse," she said, describing the budget as Wynne's "desperate" last-minute pitch to voters before the election.
Horwath added a full fledged NDP plan would reportedly better address hospital wait times, healthcare costs, housing affordability and income inequality without raising taxes on low and middle-income earners .
When pressed by reporters, Sousa reportedly said the decision to run deficits was not influenced by the looming June 7 election.
"This is not election-cycle decisions that we're making, these are long-term in scope and they're building upon decisions we have been making all along," he said.
"The responsibility we as government have is to what happens going forward ... This is about protecting people and ensuring that people are better off."
Apart from new spending on healthcare and social services, there are several initiatives aimed at youth, namely $411 million that will be used to fund a new apprenticeship program for high school students and to increase the number of Ontario students graduating from university with a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 25 percent.
For businesses, the budget promises $900 million over 10 years to expand the Jobs and Prosperity Fund (JPF).
According to the budget document, the investment will help create and sustain 70,000 new jobs and "leverage" $9 billion in private investments.
"The JPF will also provide Ontario with the flexibility to take further action to support businesses and workers and sectors of the economy that may be impacted by an uncertain and rapidly changing global environment," the budget reads.
The Liberal budget also includes a notable increase in money for public transit infrastructure, allotting $79 billion to various projects — up from $55 billion in the 2017 budget.
(Reporting by Asha Bajaj)