Students, city, seniors big Budget winners

Sitting in the front row of the Members’ East Gallery in the Legislature for the 2016-17 Ontario Budget speech, almost within handshake range of my desk were Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, Councillor Jim Tovey, and Brampton Mayor and former MPP Linda Jeffrey. The 2016-17 Budget speech started out good and kept getting better. I had just returned to the Legislative Chamber from the caucus pre-Budget briefing, just before the 4:00 p.m. As the Budget speech outlined one benefit to our city after another, Linda and Bonnie would nod with approval toward me. I kept telling them, “There’s more. There’s more!”

Indeed there was. Eight long and often tough budgets after the Province’s third consecutive Budget surplus, the light was visible at the end of the recession recovery tunnel.

  • Increased funding for hospitals ($345 million) to respond to the growing demand for highly specialized and complex services, and the need to expand access in growing communities like Mississauga;
  • Improving services for children and youth with autism through a five-year, $333 million investment. That will help Ontario’s largest children’s treatment centre, Mississauga’s ErinoakKids;
  • A boost to affordable housing through a three-year investment of $178 million, as part of the Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy.
  • A whole new post-secondary system

Treasury Board President Deb Matthews summed it up in an informal comment to us prior to walking over for the Budget speech. “As Treasury Board President, I have a PhD. The Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (Reza Moridi) has a PhD. Together, neither of us could understand the 20 or so post-secondary student support programs.” They have been replaced by just four programs, but what programs!

  • Making average tuition free for students with financial need from families with incomes of $50,000 or lower, and making tuition more affordable for middle-class families;
  • Providing non-repayable grants — which will exceed average tuition — to more than 50 per cent of students from families with incomes of $83,000 or less;
  • Ensuring that students from families with incomes of less than $50,000 will have no provincial student debt;
  • Increasing access to interest-free and low-cost loans for middle- and upper-income families;
  • Expanding financial support for mature and married students;
  • Ensuring all students will be the same, or better off, as under the Ontario Tuition Grant.

For several years, students have made many of these points in visits to MPPs. The Ministry crunched the numbers, and replaced the mosaic of programs with fewer programs that do a better job and are easier to understand, apply for and navigate. Post-secondary students are among the biggest winners in this year’s Budget.

Making life better for seniors

We watch TV on the U.S. channels, and see Americans being urged to get the shingles vaccine. It is a $170 Cdn charge here in Ontario. Or was until now. Once the Budget has passed, the shingles vaccine will be free for men and women aged between 65 and 70. Why that age spread, I asked Health Minister Eric Hoskins? Because the need for the vaccine is very rare before age 65, and the vaccine is much less effective after age 70, he told me.

  • The Budget enacts a previously-announced reform to hospital parking fees, reducing hospital parking fees for frequent hospital users at hospitals that charge more than $10 a day;
  • The Ontario Public Drug Program has remained largely unchanged since 1996. The program, which pays for 50% of the prescriptions written in this province (seniors, the disabled, social assistance recipients) set the low income bar for a single senior at $16,000 and $24,000 for a couple. Starting August 1, 2016 these levels will increase to $19,300 and $32,300 respectively, so more low income seniors will qualify for the most generous benefits;
  • An additional $130M for cancer care services over the next three years and $85M to be invested over three years for primary care teams;
  • Social assistance rates for seniors (indeed everyone) on ODSP will increase by 1.5 percent this year;
  • The Ontario Home Renovation Tax Credit was a program that was little used. It will end on December 31, 2016. In practice, it provided little support to low-income seniors. People with mobility-related disabilities or impairments may access funds to help with the cost of home modifications through the Ontario Home and Vehicle Modification Program.

There is one fee increase proposed that would have affected some seniors, with income above the new thresholds above. The annual deductible under the Ontario Drug Benefit Program was proposed to go from $100 to $170. Though these drug benefit fees had not changed in many years, government MPPs asked of the Finance Ministry after the Budget whether all of the increase needed to be passed along in one budget year. Clearly not, concluded the Finance Ministry, and that proposed increase was withdrawn.

Co-payments will be increased from $6.11 to $7.11 per claim. Many pharmacies reduce or waive this fee. In 2012, a report for the Province by former TD Chief Economist Don Drummond recommended that wherever Ontario charges a fee for a program or service, that fee must reflect all the cost of providing the program or service.

Click here for more information on programs, service and helpful information for Ontario seniors.

Municipal, transit and school Infrastructure

  • In the 2016 Budget, Ontario is making the biggest investment in infrastructure in Ontario’s history — $160 billion over 12 years, starting in 2014-15. This will help people spend more time with their families and to move goods more efficiently, while supporting the creation of 110,000 jobs per year. About $16 billion is available for transit improvements within the GTHA;
  • Another new train each way, each day on the Milton GO Line. See this article for a description of the issues on all-day, two-way service on the Milton Line;
  • An investment of $1.4 billion to cover the capital construction costs of the Hurontario LRT line in Mississauga to bring approximately 20 kilometres of new, modern, reliable rapid transit to Mississauga and southern Brampton. Construction is expected to start in 2018. The LRT will be in service in 2022;
  • Starting a 16.5-kilometre pilot project as the first step in Ontario’s plan to implement high-occupancy toll lanes. The pilot will begin on a section of the Queen Elizabeth Way between Trafalgar Road in Oakville and Guelph Line in Burlington in summer 2016 to help manage congestion and add choice for travellers;
  • Widening Highway 400 from eight to 10 lanes, adding a new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane in each direction between Major Mackenzie Drive and King Road. This project is scheduled for completion in 2018–19;
  • Widening 12 kilometres of Highway 410 from Highway 401 to Queen Street in Brampton. When completed in 2018, Highway 410 will be widened from six to 10 lanes and will provide HOV lanes to help improve traffic flow and commuter traveller choices;
  • Over 10 years, the Province plans to provide more than $11 billion in capital grants to school boards to help build new schools in areas of high growth, reduce surplus space through school consolidations, and improve the condition of existing facilities;
  • Creating almost 4,000 new licensed spaces in local schools to give children the opportunity to transition more easily into full-day kindergarten;
  • In 2016, Ontario will issue a second targeted call for proposals for a new post-secondary institution to serve the growing demand in Peel and Halton Regions.

Making life a little easier

  • The Debt Retirement Charge is gone from your electricity bill. Ontario’s low-income households may be eligible for energy price relief through the Ontario Electricity Support Program;
  • Ontario has fully rolled out its full-day kindergarten (FDK) program, making it available to more than 260,000 four- and five-year-olds in approximately 3,600 schools across the province. Ontario families can save up to $6,500 per year in child care costs by enrolling their child in full-day kindergarten;
  • The Province is supporting the development of community hubs. These hubs make public services more convenient and accessible by using a public space for many community purposes. Examples of community hubs include: providing child care in schools; sharing recreational facilities between municipalities and school boards; and offering social, medical and legal services in one public building;
  • Sixty grocery store locations across Ontario are now authorized to sell beer. Up to 150 stores will be authorized to sell beer by May 1, 2017, and up to 450 stores could eventually be approved to do so. By fall 2016, up to 70 grocery stores across Ontario will be authorized to sell wine and beer together through newly allocated authorizations. Eventually, up to 150 grocery stores will be approved to sell wine from Ontario, across Canada and around the world;
  • The Small Claims Online service will be expanded to include all types of small claims, effective April 2016;
  • The Budget dedicates $100 million of its $325 million Green Investment Fund to help about 37,000 homeowners conduct audits to reduce their energy bills by identifying energy-saving opportunities and completing retrofits, such as replacing furnaces and water heaters and upgrading insulation.

There is lots more in the 2016-17 Budget. Check out the Budget 2016-17 Home Page, or download and peruse it at your leisure on your computer or tablet.