Opposition MPPs took Finance Minister Charles Sousa to the woodshed Tuesday, saying talk of an early budget is a “slap in the face” to costly pre-budget hearings in six cities.
With Sousa expected to unveil his fiscal blueprint Mar. 3 or 10, Progressive Conservatives and the NDP said the budget will be out before the legislature’s finance committee can report on what Ontarians want to see in it.
“It appears you have turned your back,” Conservative MPP Julia Munro told Sousa, saying that shows a “complete lack of respect” for dozens of citizens and lobby groups on issues from delays in getting wine in grocery stores to the privatization of Hydro One and nurse layoffs at hospitals.
The finance minister tried to deflect the concerns, noting he hasn’t announced a budget date yet, although he told reporters earlier Tuesday it will be “soon.”
“I haven’t completed the budget. We’re in the process,” he told MPPs, who had requested he appear before the committee, the first time a finance minister has done so since 2005.
“A lot of the work you’ve been doing has already been forwarded,” added Sousa, who said the government is also hearing from Ontarians on a budget submission website and in telephone town hall meetings.
New Democrat MPP Catherine Fife said the committee, which is dominated by Liberals, won’t begin writing its report until Feb. 18, costing out recommendations in a back-and-forth effort with the finance ministry that took five or six weeks last year.
That’s fine when budgets come out in the more traditional period from late March to April or May, but represents a “lost opportunity” for Sousa to hear what’s top of mind for Ontarians, she said.
“It would be really, honestly, a slap in the face to citizens who came out to listen to us.”
There’s also the expense of travelling committee hearings, which involve chartered planes for MPPs and committee staff, hotel and meeting rooms, meals, sound equipment and more, Fife said.
Sousa said he’s sticking with a plan to balance the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year and will aim to keep it out of the red after that because “it’s important for us to go beyond.”
While there have been criticisms over the years that all governments hold pre-budget hearings and ignore many submissions to do what they want or have promised in election campaigns, hearings remain a valuable barometer, Munro said.
“I want to hear, personally, what people are saying . . . do you hear it once it once or twice, or is it everywhere the same issues coming forward?” she told reporters.
“You can say the government does whatever it likes — and I won’t argue with that — but at the same time they should be getting a broad stroke of impressions.”