Ontario budget deficit projected to jump to $38.5B in 2020-2021

Ontario is projecting its budget deficit will jump to $38.5 billion this year due to COVID-19.

Increase is attributed to higher spending, drop in revenue

The Doug Ford government's previous fiscal update delivered in March projected the deficit would reach $20.5 billion in 2020-2021. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on Ontario, the province's finance minister said Wednesday, as he announced the government has nearly doubled its deficit projection to $38.5 billion in just three months.

Rod Phillips said the pandemic has created an "unprecedented health crisis" and the province had to spend billions to support the health-care sector and help businesses and residents.

In March, the Progressive Conservative government had said the deficit would reach $20.5 billion by the end of 2020-2021, but Phillips said Wednesday the ongoing pandemic required billions more in spending.

"We remain in uncertain times and the risk of a second wave is real despite our collective efforts to avert it," he said. "The economic impacts of COVID-19 globally, and in Ontario, are still unfolding."

In its spring fiscal update, the province announced a $17-billion spending package designed to provide aid during the pandemic. The government said Wednesday that its COVID-19 relief spending will now total $30 billion by the close of the fiscal year.

Overall, the government expects to spend an additional $13 billion on programs this year, while it is expecting to collect $5.7 billion less in taxes and other revenues because of the pandemic.

Prepping for fall

Among the new measures announced in the update, the province now plans to add $4.3 billion more to a health-care spending contingency fund in advance of a potential second wave of COVID-19 this fall.

The safe restart agreement recently reached with the federal government to help municipalities with their COVID-19 expenses will cost Ontario $2.4 billion, while $2.2 billion will be added to a standard contingency fund.

The cost to Ontario for the promised pandemic pay for front-line workers is estimated at $1.1 billion.

All tax deferrals the province had put in place earlier this year will be extended until to Oct. 1, which it estimates will cost $1.3 billion.

Prior to the pandemic, Ontario had been projecting a $9-billion deficit for 2020-2021 and Premier Doug Ford had pledged to balance the province's books by 2023-2024.

Phillips stressed that the government had been on track to achieve that goal but COVID-19 required immediate action.

"While the current level of government spending and deficits are not sustainable over the long term, they are necessary today," he said.

The premier defended the spending and acknowledged that balancing the budget by 2023 was no longer possible.

"I'm going to be very frank," he said Wednesday. "It was a whole different situation six months ago compared to now. But we're going to continue to be very fiscally conservative (and) responsible."

Ford's plan lauded by CUPE

Ford has said repeatedly since the start of the pandemic that the province would not hold back spending if it felt it could save lives. Now, it's about ensuring people clearly understand how the money is being spent, he said.

"I kept my promise to the people of Ontario," he said. "When this first started, I said ... I'm not going to spare a penny and I've proved it."

The premier's spending plan received a vote of confidence from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which said in a statement that higher deficit "should not be cause for concern."

"We need more investment and support to help Ontario continue to manage and to rebound out of this crisis," the union's Ontario president Fred Hahn said. "Because spending saves lives. What the pandemic has taught us is that we need more collective resources, not less."

Earlier this year, the province postponed its annual budget, which is normally introduced in March. The government said it will instead introduce its full spending package on, or before, Nov. 14.