UPDATE: The Ontario government dropped their 2019 budget on April 11, 2019. Find more information about what it included here.
TORONTO — Ontario's Progressive Conservative government is getting lots of advice on how to slash spending, improve the health-system and make the province more "open for business" ahead of its first budget, which will come out this spring.
A budget is a big deal for any government, especially one in its first full fiscal year, but the premier's promise to slash the province's massive deficit makes it even more significant this year.
Ford has said he'll cut government spending by finding $6 billion in "efficiencies." In its first six months, his government cut $3.2 billion in spending, but also forfeited revenue by cutting taxes and axing the cap-and-trade program, so overall spending has only gone down about $500 million.
He's identified his priorities for 2019 as creating jobs, cutting the deficit and improving health care. This was outlined in a note the premier sent to public service workers last Monday, which was signed "Doug."
Watch: Here are the key promises made by the premier. Story continues after video.
Ford is clearly interested in hearing ideas about how to cut spending, as his government has already solicited input from an auditing firm, bureaucrats and the general public.
And one group that has proven to have the ear of his government is the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC). Top Ford staff and almost all of his cabinet ministers went to an event hosted by the chamber in December, which they were asked not to post about on social media.
Here's what interest groups had to say on major policy areas.
Cut spending, cut taxes
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a non-profit that lobbies for lower taxes and has been supportive of Ford's agenda, told Progressive Conservative MPPs that they haven't made enough progress on cutting Ontario's deficit.
"The speed of action needs to increase," to get the budget balanced before the next election, said the federation's Ontario director Christine Van Geyn.
She suggested ending all corporate welfare, reducing spending on government advertising, and changing OSAP so that only students with financial need get funding and all support comes in the form of loans, not grants.
The speed of action needs to increase.Christine Van Geyn
Van Geyn wants to see the government cut spending significantly, so it can also lower taxes and still run a balanced budget. She said Ford should cut taxes on middle class families by 20 per cent and cut the small business tax rate by 8.7 per cent.
Her other suggestions were to replace bureaucrats in Ontario's Public Service with artificial intelligence, and to cut funding for partisan advertising through caucus services, which the PCs currently use to produce their fake news channel Ontario News Now.
Ontario hospitals say they're desperate for funding
There are no more "efficiencies" for hospitals to find, representatives from the Ontario Hospital Association told MPPs.
Hospitals haven't seen any funding increases since 2012, but have dealt with more patients and rising labour and energy costs, the association said in a written submission. Hospitals need an extra $656 million this year, the document said, on top of the new investments Ford's government has already made.
"Serious operating pressures are putting hospital care at risk today," the association's submission said.
Long-term care homes also need more money to properly care for Ontario's seniors and people with dementia, the Ontario Long Term Care Association said in its submission.
"Wait lists are growing at an astounding rate," the association said, noting that 32,835 people were waiting for a long-term care bed as of April 2018. "Where seniors are unable to find a bed, they are cared for at home or in hospital. And that makes our problem a system problem."
These homes need $400 million over the next four years to hire more nurses and care staff, the association said. Another $11 million is needed to hire a specialized dementia support team for every home in the province.
The OCC wants Ford's government to explore private sector partnerships to tackle underfunding and long wait times.
There are "tremendous opportunities" to reform Ontario's health-care system, which the chamber calls "a sector worth more than $55 billion." Private companies could play a role through contracts, joint ventures or a voucher system that lets patients choose where they want to be cared for.
"The cost savings produced by such reforms could have a more significant impact on deficit reduction than spending cuts or revenue-generating schemes," the chamber said.
Create jobs by axing regulations, reducing taxes
The OCC also said that more needs to be done to make Ontario an attractive place for businesses. Ontario needs to keep up with tax reforms made by U.S. President Donald Trump or risk sending business owners packing, the OCC said.
Ford's government should focus on helping small and medium-sized businesses scale up to create more jobs, the OCC suggests. First off, the government should axe 25 per cent of all regulations affecting businesses.
There is a slew of other suggestions in the OCC's report, including that the government make investments in infrastructure like broadband internet in rural areas, lower taxes on businesses that bring in less than $500,000 a year, and exempt incremental income from the corporate income tax.
Union wants higher minimum wage
If Tuesday's consultations were any indication, relations between this government and organized labour aren't warming up anytime soon.
Ontario Federation of Labour president Chris Buckley chastised PC MPPs for freezing the minimum wage, interfering in collective bargaining, cancelling a roundtable on violence against women, allowing police carding to continue and not doing enough to fight climate change.
Despite some niceties — "You can call me Chris," Buckley said to MPP Jeremy Roberts; "You can call me Jeremy," Roberts said back — the exchange was testy.
Buckley said this government is keeping 1.7 million workers in poverty by refusing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which the previous government had planned to do on Jan. 1.
"Try to live on $14 an hour. I know I couldn't. Could you?" Buckley said. "It's not rocket science, Jeremy."