Watchdog, Ontario finance minister clash over unspent COVID-19 funds
Published Thursday, March 11, 2021 9:23AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, March 11, 2021 11:39AM EST
Ontario will table its 2021 budget on March 24, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said Thursday, as the Financial Accountability Office says there is still at least $4.5 billion the Ford government has not yet spent.
The 2020 budget projected a $38.5 billion deficit caused by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite significant assistance from the federal government, the province says it could run deficits worth a whopping $100 billion over the next three years.
The Ford government has borrowed heavily to prevent public sector layoffs, issue loans and grants to businesses, and buttress hospitals and public health units as they respond to the pandemic.
"Once Ontario is vaccinated and COVID-19 is behind us, the day will come when we’ll no longer fear this virus," Bethlenfalvy said at Queen's Park on Thursday morning.
He said that the 2021-2022 budget will contain additional measures to help the province get over impacts brought on by the pandemic and continue administering vaccines, comparing the situation to a ship in stormy waters.
"We can see land but we are not there yet."
He declined to say whether the budget would lay out a path to a balanced budget, something Premier Doug Ford campaigned on but had to depart from when lockdowns caused widespread job loss in 2020.
The Financial Accountability Office (FAO) said that as of Dec. 31, 2020, the province had about $4.7 billion left in its contingency fund and reserves.
Opposition parties have criticized the government for the considerable amount of money still remaining unspent during the pandemic, but Bethlenfalvy responded to that criticism saying the FAO cannot analyze government decisions in real time and is not counting recent spending.
“I wish I was sitting on a pile of cash,” he said.
“One thing I would say is there is a time delay between him having the information and the report,” he said, saying the FAO had not yet counted $1.4 billion spent to give cash grants to businesses forced to close during the winter 2021 lockdown, or another $600 million spent on additional personal protective equipment.
“There are a number of items and they’re playing a bit of catch-up,” Bethlenfalvy said.
The FAO responded that it currently has data on government spending up until Feb. 5, 2021, and that information confirms the existence of at least a $4 billion contingency fund and a $500 million reserve.
Bethlenfalvy said the government intends to spend all of that money by March 31, the end of the 2020 fiscal year.
“We are going to spend what it takes in every quarter,” he said.
Province spent $284M less than planned on public health units as pandemic raged
The FAO also found that outside of healthcare and education, all other sectors of the provincial government spent less money than they were allocated during the first nine months of 2020.
But within the healthcare sector, spending was uneven.
While overall spending was up $4.5 billion in 2020, with hospitals and long-term care all seeing major operating increases, the province spent $284 million less than planned between Oct. 31 and Dec. 31, 2020 on its 34 local public health units and Public Health Ontario, which conducts research into COVID-19 and manages its laboratory testing network.
Several large public health units including Toronto had to suspend part or all of their contact tracing efforts during the third quarter of 2020 because cases grew faster than units could hire staff to trace them.
During the fall second wave, the lobby group advocating on behalf of public health units specifically asked the province for more money to increase contact tracing, citing the example of Toronto Public Health being overwhelmed.