Parry Sound-Muskoka Member of Provincial Parliament Norm Miller says he’s pleased that the redevelopment needs of the Huntsville and Bracebridge hospitals were mentioned by name on page 116 in last week’s first provincial budget under Premier Doug Ford.
“It certainly shows that Huntsville and Bracebridge hospitals are on the radar with regard to capital planning. So, that was a pleasant surprise for me.”
He said while there are various stages along the way to finalizing Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare’s capital planning process, “it certainly means that it’s on the radar and there’s a big number, I think it’s 17 billion dollars, in capital projects planned for the next ten years, so it shows that our projects are part of that.”
The budget announced an additional investment of $384 million in hospitals and an additional $267 million in home and community care. It also “commits to working with hospitals to implement the 60 major hospital projects that are under construction or in the planning stages, including redeveloping the Huntsville and Bracebridge sites of Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare,” added Miller in a media release issued a day after the budget was announced.
In conversation with Doppler following his media release Miller described the province’s first budget under Doug Ford and the first Progressive Conservative budget in 15 years as a “thoughtful way to get back to balance.”
At the end of March, Ontario had a deficit of $11.7 billion and an estimated total debt of $349 billion. Doug Ford’s government is promising to get to a balanced budget, but not for another five years.
“We started out at a $15 billion deficit. This year’s year-end, which was just at the end of March, March 31st is the year-end for the province, the deficit was $11.7 billion,” said Miller, adding that his government plans on bringing the deficit down in increments each year until achieving a balanced budget. He called it a “thoughtful way” of being fiscally responsible without significantly reducing services. “And in fact providing some new services,” he said, referring to a new child care tax credit for families as well as free dental care for low-income seniors. He also referenced tax credits for low-income workers making about $30,000 per year or less, a program being referred to as LIFT.
But what the Ford government may be soft on is the environment, with major funding cuts announced for that ministry as well as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and initiatives like fighting forest fires. The Ford government has also dropped the climate change part of the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change’s name. It is now being called the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
But despite the changes and cuts to budgets, Miller said Environment Minister Rod Phillips is putting forward a made-in-Ontario environmental plan that does address climate change without imposing a carbon tax. He encouraged residents to go on the Province’s Environmental Bill of Rights Registry before the end of this month and comment on proposals such as doing away with single-use plastics as well as trying to recycle more than just 30 per cent of garbage.
“We have a very clear plan,” said Miller. “That will help us meet our Paris agreement, a 30 per cent reduction, and in fact Ontario is doing far better than most of Canada, the emissions have gone down by 22 per cent,” he said.
“A lot of that was to do with the single biggest change that we made as a province and that was switching off of coal-fired [hydro]generation, started by a PC government under Elizabeth Witmer with the shutting down of Lakeview, and continued by the past Liberal government. That was the single biggest step that didn’t involve a carbon tax,” he said. He also noted that the Drive Clean program, which the provincial Conservatives have announced will be discontinued, was started by the Conservatives in the first place.
“It was needed at the time, it served its purpose and in fact in recent years with the new technology of cars, et cetera, it really wasn’t making much difference. So, it has served its time. It was needed when it was brought in, but it’s time was over.” Miller also said his government will be targeting “bigger industrial trucks” in order to reduce emissions. As for forest fires, “if there’s a forest fire we’re fighting it,” he assured.
Miller said his government also plans on bringing down hydro rates by 12 per cent over the next five years. “We’ve done part of it already, but I’m sure it will be before the next election,” he said.
In terms of a controversial proposal to increase classroom sizes, Miller referred to those increases as “modest” and said no teachers will involuntarily lose their jobs, adding that reductions in teaching positions would simply happen through attrition.
“There’s no change in class sizes for the younger grades, there’s an addition of one child on average for the sort of middle primary grades, and for high school, we are coming up to the low end for the rest of the country,” said Miller. “We will have an average class size for high school of 28, which is the low-end across Canada.”
He said other initiatives will include improving math, science, and technology in the curriculum. “I know Lisa Thompson, the Minister, is trying to address some problems we’ve had in the education sector particularly with not very good math scores, especially for the Grade 6 math test, so she’s trying to improve some things like math, science, and technology – the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] area, and make some change, which is not always easy.” Miller said some teachers will also be provided with the ability to enhance their math skills, a cost the Province will cover.
Miller also said Ford’s government is committing one billion dollars toward creating 30,000 new child care spaces in schools across the province.
As for housing shortages, Miller said Minister Steve Clark is focusing on ways of creating more supply. “It’s a really important issue to him and I know it’s a huge issue not [only]around the province but certainly here in Parry Sound-Muskoka as well where you have places like Deerhurst bringing in trailers to try to provide housing, particularly for their summer employment people.”
It’s no secret that Miller had some trepidation when the party elected Doug Ford as its leader. Asked how he’s feeling now, Miller said he’s feeling better. “I’m feeling much better. I’ve gotten to know the premier and his heart is in the right place. He wants to see this province do well. Certainly, as we say, the province is open for business. We want to create jobs and create a place where people can be successful and leave a province that’s in good shape for our kids and grandkids. So… I feel great about the premier now.”
You can find more about the budget here.
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