The Catholic question and ponies: Five things the Ontario budget left out and five you might have missed

The 2016 landed on Thursday to much chatter about its plans to make average tuition essentially free for lower-income post-secondary students and the province’s still-rocky financial statements.

Peter J. Thompson/ The National PostPeter J. Thompson/ The National PostThe Ontario flag flying at Queen's Park, the seat of the Ontario legislature, where the 2016 budget was tabled Thursday.

There are also some big things the 246-document didn’t mention. Here are five glaring omissions and five things they did include, but you might have missed.

Five things that weren’t in the budget:

1. Details about the future of home care

The budget offers up a $250 annual increase to home care funding, about the same as the sector has gotten in recent years and barely enough to keep up with inflationary demands, let alone an aging population. But what was really stunning was the lack of detail about the future of who, in the alphabet soup of government agencies, will actually deliver home care. Last year, the province reviewed the sector and in December the health minister released a white paper suggesting the government will give more control from Community Care Access Centres to the Local Health Integration Networks. Without going into the nitty gritty of how Ontario health care is paid for and delivered, that essentially means the CCACs are on the chopping block and the LHINs will take over home care. But there wasn’t a word in the budget about that plan, which must be disconcerting for the hundreds of nurses and personal support workers employed by CCACs.

2. A plan to lower consumers’ energy rates

Last year’s budget announced the end to the province’s “debt retirement charge” as of January 1, 2016. It was a few bucks a month tacked onto ratepayers’ bills to help pay off debt from breaking up the hydro system and building nuclear plants. It also created the Ontario Electricity Support Program to give low-income households a break on their hydro bills. This year’s budget touts research that the province’s new cap-and-trade system will somehow lower household energy bills in the long run through the magic of green energy — which has, until now, done nothing but drive up costs in Ontario. There are grants to help homeowners install energy-efficient windows or furnaces, which would drop their bills. But there’s no specific plan, as the provincial progressive conservatives called for, to lower residential electricity bills.

Veronica Henri/Postmedia NetworkVeronica Henri/Postmedia NetworkTaxis, Uber drivers and others with an interest in the sharing economy await regulatory clarity from Queen's Park.

3. The sharing economy

There’s a couple of pages of text in the budget under the headline “Supporting the Sharing Economy.” But other than touting the billions the rise of ride-sharing, home-sharing and whatever-sharing offers in economic growth, they don’t say much. The province is working to help Uber drivers get insurance, something we already knew. It’s also asking AirBnB to help it collect taxes, such a revolutionary idea it required a splashy press conference last Friday and the title of “pilot project.” But for anyone hoping for regulatory clarity or provincial standards, all you get is the assurance an expert panel first announced in the 2015 budget is still working away and will report back… eventually.

4. Wage freezes

Back in the olden days of 2012 and 2013, when the provincial deficit was still in double-digit billions, wage freezes were all the rage. All public sector and broader public sector employees were asked to take a hit to balance the books. Then they became “net-zero increases” where cost-of living hikes could be offset with other savings through changes to the contract. The 2016 budget lauds the 2015 budget’s commitment to “net-zero increases,” and lists all deals reached under those terms. It does not, however, pledge to seek “net-zeros” in the next fiscal year. A spokesperson inside the budget lockup said this should not be taken a change in policy, but a change in rhetoric to help clear up confusion. The government still requires wage restraint in all bargaining and to help balance the books by 2017/18.

Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty ImagesJohan Ordonez/AFP/Getty ImagesPope Francis smiles from the popemobile during a visit to Mexico.

5. An answer to the Catholic question

The budget contains a number of references to the government’s Budget Talks website where citizens could submit ideas for the fiscal plan. But it doesn’t mention the single most popular idea on that website: getting rid of separate Catholic schools. The idea is so popular, different wordings of the same plan make up three different posts in the top five most popular ideas. Some estimates suggests that merging school boards would save $1 billion in administration costs every year. But there are constitutional challenges — the separate school system predates Confederation and is enshrined in laws that date to when Ontario was Upper . And none of the three parties at Queen’s Park have expressed any recent support for defunding Catholic schools, though it was part of the Green Party of Ontario’s 2014 platform.

Five things you might have missed in the budget:

1. Cash for autism services

At a poignant press conference early this year, the New Democrats raised the alarm about growing wait lists for behavioural programs to help kids with autism. Parents broke down as they described the financial toll of paying for therapies their children needed before certain developmental milestones they would have missed if they’d waited years for a government-funded gap. The Liberals responded with $333 million in Thursday’s budget, which when coupled with $880 million for developmental services announced in 2014, brings their total investment in the sector to well over $1 billion.

Photo Peter J. Thompson/National PostPhoto Peter J. Thompson/National PostOntario Premier and Liberal Party Leader Kathleen Wynne and Minister of Finance Charles Sousa released the budget at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto, Thursday

2. Rising service fees

A small section of the budget could have big implications for your wallet. The province has announced it will review all service fees — cost of things like renewing your driver’s license or getting a fishing license — and will index those costs to inflation in the future.

3. A new tone for the feds

In recent years, every Ontario budget has included a section about the federal government and how it doesn’t give the province enough money. Well, what a difference a change in Ottawa makes. This budget is full of hope and optimism about working with the new federal government that also just happens to be Liberal. They’re going to work together on affordable housing and transit and indigenous issues and getting every Ontarian a pony. Ok, maybe not the last one… yet.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO/Michael BurnsTHE CANADIAN PRESS/HO/Michael BurnsExperts have wondered how horse racing in Ontario could survive without the revenue-sharing program.

4. Betting on the ponies

There might not be a pony for every wishful Ontarian, but there is more cash for the horse-racing industry. After the province cancelled the slots-at-racetracks program, which essentially subsidized the rural industry for decades, the thousands of people directly and indirectly employed by horse racing kicked up a fuss. The Liberals in turn announced a $500 million strategy to help the industry transition and integrate it into the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s plans to expand gambling in Ontario. That strategy has been extended another two years, from 2019 to 2021, and the province has raised its bet by another $100 million.

5. Tackling racism and reconciliation

The budget includes a section confirming the province’s plans to open an anti-racism directorate, though it does not yet attach an annual budget. It also affirms Ontario’s commitment to working to implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation report, including $5 million over three years to increase public awareness of the history of residential schools and other indigenous issues. It also confirms $100 million in funding for a strategy to tackle violence against indigenous women.

BONUS ROUND: Much has been made about the province’s plan to eliminate the $30 Drive Clean fee for emissions tests. This has led to some confusion that the program has been cancelled. If you have an older vehicle, you still need to ensure your car meets provincial emissions standards every couple of years. So the program is anything but axed, you just don’t have to pay for it anymore. The province will now pay your mechanic instead, at an average cost of $60 million a year.

About Ashley Csanady