Provincial and federal Budgets are, under normal circumstances, a major element of the late winter-early spring political cycle of events and announcements across Canada.
In the year of nothing normal, the 2020 Ontario Budget was tabled in early November. Finance Minister Rod Phillips provided a provincial COVID-19 strategy and economic update last March with a commitment to deliver his complete fiscal forecast in the fall.
Generally, the response to the recent Budget was positive across Waterloo Region. Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic stated he is pleased that the provincial government has not forgotten about local infrastructure projects, most notably GO rail passenger service into Toronto and a new Highway 7 between our Region and Guelph/Wellington County.
As Mayor Vrbanovic noted, major projects can drop off the provincial radar, particularly during the fiscal pressures of a pandemic. However, any previous commitments to support Waterloo Region’s economic and population growth appear on course for scheduled completion timelines.
Another certainty is the on-going concern and anxiety across the province with broadband expansion. As any resident or business operating in rural and northern Ontario is aware, the access to reliable internet service was an issue long before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The current predicament has exponentially elevated the urgency around more investments for better service levels.
The Budget commits an additional $680 million for expanded broadband and cellular capabilities, which combined with previous investments, will now total nearly $1 billion. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce has noted this additional funding will significantly assist many unserved and underserviced communities and it is expected that 220,000 homes and business will have improved access. Mayors and councillors from rural municipalities highly support these announcements which should better connect residents to the rest of Canada and businesses to new markets and potential customers around the globe.
Additional Budget items along with broadband commitments are investments in skills training for displaced workers, assistance on electricity costs, and tax fairness for businesses.
The pandemic will end and Ontario needs to be prepared. Investments into communities and businesses are not only needed today but also well into the recovery phases of the future.