Finance Minister Vic Fideli. (Photo from Vic Fedeli's Facebook page.)

Looser rules on alcohol a significant focus in first PC budget

The Ford government is planning to loosen the rules on alcohol to allow public drinking and earlier access to booze as part of the Ontario Tories’ first budget.

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli unveiled the 283-page Progressive Conservative budget on Thursday, which included a number of measures pertaining to alcohol reform across the province.

The PCs said they plan to introduce legislation to allow municipalities to pass laws that would permit people to drink in parks or other designated public areas.  The government also plans to allow bars, restaurants and other licensed establishments to serve alcohol starting at 9 a.m.  Those establishments will also be permitted to advertise “Happy Hour” specials.

These initiatives are slated to come into effect this summer and come on top of the PCs plan to permit alcohol at tailgate parties outside sports events, which was announced earlier this week. The province also still plans to make it legal to sell wine and beer at corners stores.

A number of gambling-related initiatives were also announced in the new budget, including legalizing online gambling, which is currently regulated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission. As well, the province plans to push the federal government to allow betting on single-game sporting events, a practice that is currently illegal.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner pointed out that booze and gambling are mentioned “63 times” in the budget.

“Budgets reflect the values and priorities of a government,” he said in a statement. “And with this budget, it’s clear what they want to protect are booze gambling and tailgating.”

While many were expecting significant cuts in the provincial budget, the government announced a new tax credit for child-care support for families with incomes of up to $150,000.  The Childcare Access and Relief from Expenses credit (CARE) will cost the government around $390 million each year. Families are expected to receive around $1,250 a year through the program, which will be made retroactive this year to January 1.

As well, the government plans to make changes to the way it funds the province’s 45 publicly assisted post-secondary institutions.  The government said performance outcomes will dictate a higher percentage of how much funding each college or university.

Revamped licence plates and logos were also a part of Thursday’s budget announcements. The PC government intends to spend just under $600,000 for a redesign of the province’s branding, that includes the official government logo and slogan, licence plates and drivers’ licences.

Licence plates, in particular, will be blue and carry the new slogan “A Place to Grow”, which will replace the current “Yours to Discover” slogan.

With the budget coming on the heels of proposed cuts to education — including an increase in class sizes and a decrease in the number of teachers — the government said it plans to spend $1 billion more on education over the next three years.  However, a freeze on further spending has been slated for 2020-2021 fiscal year.

“While the budget has provided an incomplete picture of education funding, nothing can obscure the fact that this government is making massive education cuts and eliminating thousands of teachers from classrooms,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. “The government is undermining learning conditions for all students with larger class sizes and insufficient funding for students with special needs, mental health issues and high-risk behaviours.”

The official opposition called the new budget “irresponsible and outright cruel”.

“We were braced for deep cuts, but no one was prepared for the level of irresponsibility and outright cruelty in Ford’s budget,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “Instead of investments in health care, education and more opportunities for children, Ford is focused on booze and sticking a partisan ad on your car.”

The Ford government said it is continuing its efforts to eliminate what it projects as a deficit of $11.7 billion.  Fedeli said the PCs plan to balance the books by 2023-2024.

Further information about the 2019 provincial budget can be found by clicking here.