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Province launches pre-budget feedback

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TORONTO—Ontario's finance minister has launched a series of public consultations to develop this year's provincial budget, which he suggests will be delivered earlier than usual because of the upcoming election.

Charles Sousa did not provide an exact date for the budget during a press conference yesterday but said the provincial election—set for June 7-creates a condensed timeline for the government to deliver the spending plan, and ensure legislative watchdogs and Ontario residents can examine it properly.

“I know we're going to be as advanced and open in terms of what we are doing for the benefit of the Auditor General and the [Financial Accountability Officer],” Sousa said.

“Now, because of the election . . . those timelines are constrained, but I want to provide as much information as possible so that everyone can be aware of what is being proposed and what's being done,” he stressed.

The annual pre-budget consultations will take place across the province. The government said roughly 71,000 people took part in the sessions last year.

Residents' ideas for the budget also can be sent in by mail, e-mail, or fax by Feb. 9.

Sousa confirmed last fall that Ontario's 2018 budget will be balanced—as will budgets over the next two years.

The finance minister said he doesn't see this year's spending package as an “election budget” but a plan for future generations.

“Every budget is long-term in scope," he noted. ”You have to go beyond the election cycles when you're preparing a budget.

“I don't see things on a quarter-by-quarter basis,” Sousa stressed.

“I look at ensuring I have sufficient revenue to accommodate those very year-end activities but, at the same time, I have to plan for the future.”

Sousa was tight-lipped on specifics but said the budget will, in part, address uncertainty around ongoing renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“We have uncertainty in the marketplace,” he remarked.

“With discussions around NAFTA . . . we want to provide calm and understanding as to what that means for the province of Ontario as we move forward.”

One observer said the budget takes on new meaning in an election year.

The spending plan will help the government highlight what it intends to do if re-elected and will detail some of what is likely to be in the Liberal Party's platform this spring, said Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University.

“The approach [to this budget] is, we look at our problems, we promise to solve these problems over the next four years, and this how much we're going to spend or the action we're going to take,” he said.

“That's basically the template right now.”

In addition to the cross-provincial consultations announced yesterday, Jacek said the government also is conducting extensive polling behind the scenes to figure out what issues it needs to “take off the table” to clear the path to re-election.

“What [the budget] will tell you is what they see the problems are," he noted. ”That is probably the result of their polls, which, of course, they'll never tell you what's in them.

“They're polling like mad at this point.”

Last year, the provincial government delivered its budget on April 27.

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