Yesterday, Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy stood in the Legislature and produced his Fall Economic Statement (FES), along with accompanying legislation known as the Building a Strong Ontario Together Act, 2023.
The “FES” is one of a few days in the legislative calendar – along with Throne Speeches and Budgets – where the government gets to signal its agenda looking forward and trumpet its successes (and maybe paper over its failures) all on the same day.
Yesterday’s speech returned to well used, and successful, themes of “Building Ontario”, “Working for You” (and its variant “Working for Workers”) and “Keeping your Costs Down” to communicate that the Ford government remains focused on this agenda.
For his part, Minister Bethlenfalvy continued to burnish his credentials and reputation as a fiscal hawk by focusing on his plan to return Ontario to a balanced budget. The Finance Minister emphasized several times that he was “sticking to his plan” and maintaining his commitment to the “responsible and targeted approach” the Minister communicated in his 2023 Budget.
- Finance is projecting a deficit of $5.6 billion in 2023-24 – a significant increase from the $1.3 billion deficit forecast in the Spring 2023 budget. These new projections reflect “updated economic revenue information and higher contingencies,” as well as slower economic growth projections for the next two years.
- Looking ahead, the province is forecasting a deficit of $5.3 billion in 2024-25 and a surplus of $0.5 billion in 2025-26, thereby balancing the budget in the next 2-3 years – just in time for the 2026 election.
- Ontario’s nominal GDP growth is projected to rise 3.6 percent in 2023, and 2.9 percent next year. Real GDP is projected to rise 1.1 percent in 2023 and 0.5 percent in 2024. Notably, the province is offering prudence in its projections as these numbers attempt to consider extremely volatile geo-political factors and an interest rate environment that is very hard to predict. Bethlenfalvy, true to his roots as a Chief Risk Officer, has opted for very conservative forecasts, even more modest than many private sector projections.
- The current slow growth rate is hindered by CPI Inflation projected at 3.7 percent this year, but dropping to the in-range target of 2.5 percent in 2024.
- The net debt-to-GDP ratio is now forecast to be 38.4 percent, compared with the forecast of 37.8 percent projected in the 2023 Budget. These numbers remain the worst in the country (among provinces), but at least its trending in the right direction.
Investments and Other New Initiatives:
In a speech that didn’t contain a lot of new policy, a few items of note:
- The province is intending to follow through on steps to remove the 8 percent provincial Ontario Harmonized Sales Tax on qualifying projects for new purpose-built rental housing. As a result, the full 13 percent HST on new qualifying rental buildings will be removed when combined with federal level enhancements. The intention is to provide a direct and significant attempt to kick-start the construction of more purpose-built rentals – especially for seniors, students and modest income renters. In an environment where hundreds of thousands of housing units are needed, every little bit helps – and this will help a lot!
- The Government will extend the current gas and fuel tax rate cuts through to June 30, 2024, saving households $260 on average and costing the treasury approximately $320 million. As background, this is a tax cut first introduced many years ago as a “temporary” measure, but it’s increasingly difficult to see a circumstance when the politics would ever allow it to be returned to previous levels.
- The infrastructure bank will be another tool on top of the $180.5 billion over 10 years capital plan for building highways, hospitals, transit, schools, LTC homes, broadband, and other critical infrastructure.
- The province will introduce a new Housing-Enabling Water Systems Fund, with $200 million over 3 years, which is meant to encourage municipalities to invest in the water systems that new housing development needs.
- An overdue and welcome health investment is being made in preventative medicine. Beginning in the fall 2024, the province is expanding eligibility for self-referred breast cancer screening. The eligibility age will be lowered from 50 to age 40 for eligible women, non-binary, trans and two-spirit people. This health investment is expected to result in an additional 130,000 mammograms every year, and no doubt will save many lives through early detection. Bravo!
- The province is also adding an additional $100 million to the Invest Ontario Fund for a total of $500 million. This fund is used to attract foreign direct investment to Ontario, through both direct incentives and marketing programs. Minister of Economic Development, Vic Fedeli, has been on a whirlwind world tour over the past number of years, working to attract new business to Ontario. The new funding gives Minister Fedeli even more tools to work with.
Interesting Items from the Back-Pages of the FES
The headlines – such as they are – went to the items noted above, but we at Counsel also caught a few other items that we know will be of interest to some of our clients, or maybe just to other policy nerds like us!
- A new Target Benefit Pension Plan Regulatory Framework: This updated framework is meant to stabilize and improve the sustainability of multi-employer pension plans that are very common in the unionized skilled trade industry.
- Municipal Borrowing: The province is exploring options to provide improved flexibility and borrowing terms for municipalities to access necessary capital under Infrastructure Ontario’s Loan Program.
- Modernizing Surety Bonds: The province is proposing to allow for lower minimum bonding requirements, a type of financial security, for large public infrastructure projects that do not involve private financing. The goal is to increase bids and healthy competition on large capital projects. It remains to be seen whether the greater use of surety bonds will be allowed or encouraged for other builders, such as home builders or ICI builders. Maybe that’s phase two?
- Supporting Federal Initiatives in Financial Markets: The Ontario government is supportive of ongoing federal initiatives in the financial markets sector, including:
- Establishing a made‐in‐Canada open banking framework to support Canada’s increasingly digital economy; and
- Modernizing digital payment tools, such as Real‐Time Rail, a national payment processing system intended to facilitate rapid and data‐rich payments/
- The province will add an additional $12 million per year in tax credits to support the critical minerals mining industry through an enhanced “Ontario-Focused Flow-Through Share Tax Credit”. This enhancement is meant to help stimulate critical mineral exploration in Ontario and improve access to capital for small mining exploration companies.
- Ontario is accepting the federal government’s invitation to levy an additional excise duty on vaping products intended for sale in Ontario at the same rate as the existing federal excise duty.
- And finally, the Canada Pension Plan gets a flattering note in the “Working for Workers” section as a “uniquely Canadian approach” that “benefits all workers”. Statements like that could foreshadow an interesting conversation at the next provincial premiers meeting!
As always, there’s two ways to read a document like the FES – to read what’s in it (see above) and to read between the lines on what’s missing. Telling us what’s missing is typically the job of the Opposition, and their statements were predictable in pointing out where the FES fell short, in their view.
“We need real measures to invest in public services and make people’s lives easier. All people got today from Ford was more of the same. People have lost trust in this government, and after seeing today’s budget – I can see why.” – Catherine Fife, MPP, NDP Finance Critic
“It is unbelievable, that at a time when families are struggling to keep up with the soaring cost of living, and a record number of Ontarians are relying on food banks, this Conservative government would choose to include zero new measures to provide families with immediate pocketbook relief in their Fall Economic Statement,” – Stephanie Bowman, MPP, Ontario Liberal Party Finance Critic
Also notable for its absence was any reference to the new Ontario-Toronto working group looking at the City of Toronto’s finances. Depending on what Ontario agrees to upload (like the Gardiner and Don Valley Expressway) or transfer to the City, this could have a big price-tag going forward. Something we’ll be watching closely.
During COVID, when the financial situation of Ontario was so fluid, the FES became a big(ger) deal than it had before. It was a mid-year, full-on mini-budget and there were substantial investments announced in the COVID-era FES. Both the Fall 2023 and the 2022 FES (which was introduced only a few months after a late election budget) were meant to be different. The Fall 2023 FES was deliberately meant to be smaller, to generate less news and to keep the spotlight on the Spring Budget as the main agenda-setting event in the yearly calendar. To that end, the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs also announced yesterday their extensive Spring 2024 Budget consultation schedule. So, if you didn’t see your initiative/investment/tax-break/policy in this FES, fret not – there are more opportunities to come! And Counsel is here to help you navigate all the way!
If you have questions about what the Ontario FES means for your sector, business, or association, please reach out to the Counsel Public Affairs team.