With a self-imposed March 31st deadline, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has only three weeks to table the 2021 budget. With the resignation of Rod Phillips over his jet-setting holiday to St. Barts, newly minted Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy has been thrust into the thick of budget planning, while juggling two other portfolios as President of the Treasury Board and Minister Responsible for Digital Government.
By no means is Bethlenfalvy a stranger to the budgetary process, having been responsible for setting the ministerial funding envelopes and controlling the purse strings of the province since being elected in 2018. However, crunching the numbers is only a small piece of the annual update. The budget is an exercise in communications. It is an avenue to highlight your latest ‘goodies’ and show important stakeholders that their issues remain a priority. The margin for error is small with all eyes on Bethlenfalvy. Hit the bullseye and the government gets a bump; miss the mark, and it may be Bethlenfalvy’s first and last budget.
It was a quick transition into the Finance Minister’s office for Bethlenfalvy. In just a few short weeks, staff had been shuffled, and he was off to the races, hosting (virtual) pre-budget consultations across the province alongside Parliamentary Assistants Stan Cho and Michael Parsa. With the Ford government foregoing the standard Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs (SCOFEA) consultations, staff were able to clamp down on the invite list and streamline ‘asks.’
While it has only been four months since the last budget, a lot has changed. The 2020 fall budget was an attempt by Ford and Phillips to strike a balance between combatting the virus and forging ahead with the economic recovery. Their plans were foiled when the second wave hit its peak shortly after the budget presentation and the Ford government was forced to impose a provincial lockdown for two months. After Friday’s announcement that every Ontarian could have the first COVID-19 vaccine dose as soon as June 20th, Ford and his team are planning for the spring budget to primarily focus on recovery.
You cannot blame them for wanting to shift their focus to recovery. After all, Premier Ford has been taking it on the chin from his base, especially small businesses. Despite doling out $1 billion in support grants to closed businesses, his decision to keep big box stores open while shuttering family-operated shops has created many headaches for the government.
Another priority for Minister Bethlenfalvy will be introducing new support measures for families, with many in worse shape compared to last year. The challenge for the Minister will be finding the right opportunities that meet the government’s tight timelines. Time is not on their side for traditional stimulus and recovery investments (infrastructure projects etc.). The measures that Minister Bethlenfalvy announces in a few short weeks will need to benefit families immediately. Kitchen table issues like family tax credits, hydro rates, and child care enhancements are just a few examples of investments that can pay off in this way. Balancing the need for economic stimulus with the natural inclination towards austerity is going to be tough. Failure to do so, however, will make their path to reelection much more difficult.
The Ford government is in an unenviable position. Less than two years into their mandate, they were tasked with navigating the province through a once-in-a-century pandemic. While certain failures of the system may not be their fault, they will still be held responsible by Ontario voters. June 2022 is creeping up on the Premier and the decisions that his team makes now could have a direct impact on their electoral success next year.