Watchdog says Ontario spent $10.3 billion less than planned during last fiscal year

Ontario Premier Doug Ford introduces legislation at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday March 19, 2020. Only minimum representation from all parties were present to prevent unnecessary crowding. (The Canadian Press)

Ontario spent about $10 billion less in the last fiscal year than it had planned, the province's financial watchdog said Wednesday as the opposition criticized the government for not investing those funds in more pandemic supports.

The Financial Accountability Office said in a report that the government had boosted its spending plan by $22.1 billion during the 2020-21 fiscal year, which was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, the province actually spent $10.3 billion less than planned, including $1 billion less in health and a $3.4-billion end-of-year balance in a contingency fund. That money will go toward reducing Ontario's net debt - projected to be about $400 billion.

A spokeswoman for the minister of health said part of the lower-than-planned health spending was due to lower demand for some services due to the pandemic, and lower spending by the public health sector on monitoring, detecting, and containing COVID-19 due to improving trends.

The $10.3 billion also includes $1.1 billion less than planned on interest on debt.

The FAO said that for the last 10 years, actual spending was $3.8 billion lower than planned, on average, making this year's figure "significantly higher" than in the previous decade.

A spokesman for the president of the treasury board noted that overall spending increased by $21.3 billion compared to the previous year, due to pandemic measures, and that there was no money left over in a Health Fund or a Support for People and Jobs Fund.

"Over the past year, our government has made unprecedented and historic investments to protect the health-care system and support people and businesses across the province," Sebastian Skamski said in a statement.

"Premier (Doug) Ford has said time and again throughout this pandemic that our government will not spare a penny when it comes to the health and safety of the people of Ontario."

The financial watchdog is projecting that the 2020-21 budget deficit will be $29.3 billion, compared to the $38.5 billion the government projected in its last budget. That estimate is based, in part, on revenue expected to be $2.7 billion higher than forecast, since the outlook for Ontario's economy has improved since the budget, the report said.

The NDP reiterated a call for a public inquiry into Ontario's COVID-19 response.

"While our loved ones suffered in long-term care, businesses struggled through painfully long lockdowns, and the province could not keep up with things like contact tracing, the Ford government was squirrelling away billions of dollars that they refused to invest to help Ontarians," finance critic Catherine Fife said in a statement.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Ford "shortchanged" Ontarians.

"My heart breaks thinking of the impact this $10.3 billion could have had if it was put towards providing 10 days of paid sick leave, support for our loved ones in nursing homes, and a safe return to school last September," he wrote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2021.