Todayâ€™s provincial budget continues previously announced stimulus in the short term and projects severe, but largely unspecified, spending restraint in the long term. The most surprising new measure, a lower electricity rate for northern Ontario industry, is of little fiscal significance (costing just 0.1% of the budget).
A less surprising measure of potentially greater fiscal significance is the attempt to freeze public-sector compensation. The government is actually legislating a two-year freeze for the minority of public-sector workers who do not bargain collectively.
The government has declared its intention to negotiate two-year freezes with its unions as their existing collective agreements expire. Also, it will limit transfers to hospitals, universities, etc. on the assumption that these provincially-funded institutions will negotiate two-year freezes as their collective agreements expire.
Here is the United Steelworkersâ€™ press release, which emphasizes the lower electricity rate and compensation freeze:
Ontario Budget: Austerity for Workers, Tax Cuts for Bay Street
TORONTO, March 25 – Todayâ€™s provincial budget does little to address the jobs crisis in Ontario, say the United Steelworkers (USW). Indeed, the budget itself projects an even higher unemployment rate this year than last year.
â€œThe only positive surprise is the lower electricity rate for industrial facilities in northern Ontario,â€ observed Wayne Fraser, USW’s Ontario Director. â€œOur union has long advocated using abundant hydro power to support industrial jobs in Canada.â€
The Northern Ontario Electricity Rate Program will be worth $150 million annually. One of the largest potential beneficiaries is Vale Inco, which has refused to negotiate with its Steelworker employees for eight months.
â€œVale can now save more on hydro rates than it could conceivably save through the concessions that it has been trying to impose on our members,â€ said Fraser. â€œTodayâ€™s budget should prompt Vale to drop its demands for concessions. In fact, we call on the Ontario government to not approve the reduced electricity rate for Vale unless and until it returns to the bargaining table and negotiates a fair deal.â€
Despite projecting ongoing inflation, the Ontario government is planning to introduce a two-year pay freeze for public employees. While it will respect existing collective agreements, â€œthe fiscal plan provides no funding for incremental compensation increases for any future collective agreements.â€
The budget speech pays lip service to post-secondary education as â€œour great competitive advantage,â€ but the budget restrains transfers to universities to pressure administrators to impose the two-year freeze on university staff when their collective agreements expire.
The United Steelworkers union represents staff at the Universities of Toronto and Guelph. â€œWhen our collective agreements expire next year, the employer’s opening offer may be a compensation freeze,â€ noted Fraser. â€œHowever, our union will seek to negotiate improvements on both campuses.â€
Although the government claims that restraint is needed to balance the budget, it is pressing ahead with costly, no-strings-attached tax breaks for business. The province is giving up annual revenues of $4.5 billion by indiscriminately removing sales tax from all business inputs, $2.4 billion by slashing the corporate income tax rate and $1.6 billion by eliminating the corporate capital tax.
â€œBy attempting a pay freeze for 1.2 million Ontario workers, the government risks putting downward pressure on wages throughout the provincial economy,â€ said USW economist Erin Weir. â€œTo facilitate the consumer spending needed to sustain an economic recovery, the government should instead be looking for ways to support wages.â€
There were a couple of other interesting points:
Setting the Table for Asset Sales?
Like the recent provincial throne speech, the budget promises a â€œreviewâ€ of government business enterprises (page 26). I have noted elsewhere that the ongoing profits of Ontarioâ€™s Crown corporations are worth more than the anticipated proceeds of selling them.
The budget seems to attenuate this argument by reducing projected Crown-corporation profits (page 101). This reduction is notable because the budget generally foresees a slightly improved economic outlook, relative to the fall fiscal update.
Based on the fiscal update, my op-ed had assumed combined profits of $4.3 billion for the current fiscal year. Todayâ€™s budget projects only $4.1 billion.
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that Crown-corporation profits were projected to rise to $4.8 billion by 2011-12. The budget dials that back to $4.4 billion.Â It tosses out some vaguely plausible reasons, without any details, for this appreciable reduction (page 109).
One wonders whetherÂ the government is just lowering the bar for future Crown-corporation policy. If the government restructures its assets in some way and profits simply return to previous projections, the government could attribute thisÂ â€œincreaseâ€ to the restructuring.
Checking the Footnotes
In support of â€œOntarioâ€™s Tax Plan for Jobs and Growth,â€ the budget cites a 2004 Finance Canada report that I cited on this very blog last weekend. The budget claims that this report concluded that removing sales tax from business inputs â€œhas a stronger beneficial impact on economic growth than any other kind of tax measureâ€ (page 152).
In fact, Finance Canadaâ€™s report concluded that increasing capital cost allowances delivered the most benefit. Removing sales tax from business inputsÂ came in third behindÂ cutting personal income tax on capital gains.
The 2004 report also concluded that corporate income tax cuts are relatively ineffective. Finance Canadaâ€™s calculations indicated that a dollar of corporate income tax cuts provides less than one-third as much benefit as each dollar of sales tax removed from business inputs.
Therefore, a source that the Ontario government itself chose to cite actually casts doubt on the provincial tax plan, which devotes billions to slashing the corporate income tax.
For More Information
Fortuitously, the CCPAâ€™s budget analysis mostly focuses on issues other than those that I have addressed. This document is concise and well worth reading.