MPPs to hit hydro issue hard when winter break ends

It is one final day off for MPPs who will return to the Ontario legislature Tuesday from the winter break.

Rising hydro rates will be top of mind, as will winter hydro disconnections and the further sale of Hydro One on Tuesday.

There are indeed other pressing issues in the province, and in the near future the Liberal government will present its first balanced budget in years, but there is no bigger topic in Ontario politics right now than hydro.

The furor over electricity rates comes at a time when bills have about doubled in the last decade. Ratepayers are angry and Premier Kathleen Wynne is feeling the heat.

She has been sounding a note of contrition in the past several months after admitting high bills are her "mistake," a result of not paying close enough attention to rising costs to consumers while focusing on big-picture issues such as removing coal from the system and investing in transmission grid upgrades.

The government introduced an eight per cent rebate on electricity bills that took effect Jan. 1, with further savings for rural customers, but Ontarians have told Wynne that isn't enough.

Wynne has promised more relief and has been hinting that more across-the-board savings will be introduced, as well as targeted measures for low-income and rural and northern residents.

 "We recognize that everyone across the province has seen increases in electricity, precipitous increases, over the last number of years and so we recognize that there's more that we need to do for everyone," Wynne said recently.

"Beyond that we recognize that there are people who live in rural and northern communities who are having even more of a challenge, and then there are low-income Ontarians who again have an additional burden, who are literally having to choose between paying the rent and paying their electricity bills, so we recognize we have to tackle all those challenges."

A source familiar with government discussions on the issue said that in terms of a universal cut, they are looking at incrementally building on the eight per cent rebate.

There is talk of tackling the global adjustment, a charge levied to cover the gap between the guaranteed prices the Liberal government promised electricity generators in long-term contracts and actual market rates, "because it's one thing we do have some control over," the source said.

Extra relief for low-income ratepayers may come from taxpayers, the source said, instead of other ratepayers, as in current programs such as the Ontario Electricity Support Program. That program has come under fire both for not signing up everyone who is eligible and also spending almost $12 million on consultants and advertising to get them to register.

Recipients have also criticized the OESP for not providing enough support. A single person earning less than $28,000 gets a $30 monthly credit on their bill, while those eligible for the maximum $50 credit have to be a household of six and earn less than $28,000 or a household of seven or more earning $39,000 or less.

The promised new relief will be announced some time before the spring budget, but the first order of business for both opposition parties on Tuesday is winter disconnections.