As the Ontario legislature returns from its two-month hiatus, the policy focus of the House will be on the timing and content of the Wynne government’s budget, as well as a number of government bills that remain for consideration by the Legislative Assembly.

Politically, the focus will be on the OPP investigation into bribery allegations tied to the selection of incoming Sudbury MPP Glenn Thibeault as the Liberal candidate.  (As readers recall, Thibeault is the former NDP MP who won a by-election under the Liberal standard following the resignation of NDP MPP Joe Cimino.)

With the result of the February 5th by-election factored in, the House is now composed of 59 Liberals, 28 Progressive Conservatives, and 20 New Democrats.

Budget Timing & Content Remain Uncertain

The introduction of the Liberal’s budget will quite likely be delayed again this year as a result of federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s announcement that the federal budget would not be delivered until after April 1.

The Liberals are expected to maintain that the government is on track to eliminate the province’s deficit by 2017-18, currently projected to be $12.5 billion, but the enduring question of how Premier Wynne’s promise to balance the books can be accomplished remains to be answered. To address the short term, the Budget 2015 will include the final recommendations of the Premier’s Advisory Council on Government Assets (a.k.a. the Clark panel).  These recommendations are expected to centre on the extraction of more revenue from the sale of beverage alcohol (specifically, beer sold under The Beer Store’s private near-monopoly) and revenue from the sale of Brampton Hydro One, with a promise of further electricity reform. 

Citing these revenues, the government will maintain that it is making progress towards balancing the province’s books. To meet its longer-term objective, however, the government will need to make more substantial reforms.  In a recent speech, Deputy Premier and President of the Treasury Board Deb Matthews stated that the government would avoid making across-the-board spending cuts in order to reduce the deficit.  However Matthews did signal that some of the government’s deficit reduction measures could come from decreases in public sector compensation.  As a result, we will be monitoring closely the government’s upcoming collective agreements with the public sector.

OPP Investigation into Sudbury By-Election Expected to be Prominent Issue

Debate around Queen’s Park will feature the OPP’s investigation into the recent Sudbury by-election.  Wynne’s deputy chief of staff Pat Sorbara and Sudbury Liberal organizer Gerry Lougheed are under investigation by the OPP for alleged bribery, and the PC and NDP are certain to make this investigation a prominent topic of Question Period.

Toronto Public School Closures Expected to be another Hot Issue

We also expect further attention on the possible school closures in Toronto, following Education Minister Liz Sandals’ order to the Toronto District School Board to submit a plan to deal with “underutilized schools,” including potential closures and sales.  While this policy has been criticized by the opposition parties at Queen’s Park, Toronto Mayor John Tory also felt the need to weigh in, asking that the municipal government be included in any discussions about school closures.

Government Closes Initial Consultation Period on Ontario Pension Plan Proposal

With the deadline for written comments regarding the government’s proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) having passed last week, observers are wondering whether the Liberal government will stick to their plan to give preferential treatment to defined benefit (DB) pension plans by excluding those employers who offer such plans from ORPP participation, while still requiring defined contribution (DC) plan employers to participate in the ORPP.  Although the government opened a formal consultation period in December, this issue has largely been under the radar, and we expect the ORPP to gain salience as employers and employees better understand its implications.

Government Opens Climate Change Consultation Period

Another area of significant impact that has received limited news coverage is the government’s recently-released climate change discussion paper.  While the Wynne government has major ambitions with regard to mitigating climate change in the province, it is yet to be seen whether its vision will translate into a carbon tax, cap-and-trade system, or some other option.  Further details on the discussion paper and a list of public consultation sessions can be found here.

Key Milestone Approaches in Endless PC Leadership Campaign

Finally, as the February 28th membership deadline approaches for eligibility to vote in the Ontario PC Party’s May leadership election, the sprint by the remaining three leadership campaigns to sign up members will come to an end, and the objective of the campaigns will shift to persuading undecided party members to support their candidates.

With MPPs Vic Fedeli and Lisa MacLeod dropping out of the race and endorsing MPP Christine Elliott, the election is thought to have been transformed into one of the provincial party establishment, as represented by Elliott, versus party outsider, as represented by Barrie MP Patrick Brown.  Despite making headlines after attracting the endorsement of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, MPP Monte McNaughton trails behind both of his competitors.

Party members will vote by preferential ballot on either May 3rd or May 7th, and the results will be announced on May 9th at the Party’s leadership convention in Toronto.