QP Briefing. Ford government promises changes to some business support programs

By Jessica Smith Cross

Economic Development Minister Todd Smith promised Monday his government will soon announce changes to the way the provincial government doles out grants and loans to businesses.

The Tories campaigned on a promise to “end corporate welfare” by axing the “corrupt” Liberal-era Jobs and Prosperity Fund — but upon taking office, they began proudly announcing handouts from that very fund, including a $34.5-million grant to Maple Leaf Foods announced in November.

According to documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the government doled out $130,709,882 from the Jobs and Prosperity Fund in the first seven months since taking office. The group issued a press release accusing the Doug Ford government of breaking its campaign promise.

“The premier called this fund ‘corrupt’ in his platform and during the campaign repeatedly referred to it as ‘corporate welfare,’ so why is it continuing to waste money?” said CTF Ontario director Christine Van Geyn.

“The premier needs to end this fund immediately.”

On Monday, Smith headed off that criticism by saying the government closed one stream of the Jobs and Prosperity Fund — the new economy stream, targeted at major projects with at least $10 million in costs — in December.

But other streams of the fund are still active, as are regional economic development funds.

Those programs are under review, but in the meantime, Smith said the government honoured commitments to businesses made by the previous government.

The results of the review and what the government plans to do on the issue will be made clear soon, according to Smith.

“What we’ve found was there was no transparency previously, that a lot of the funds were treated as if they were slush funds,” he said. “We want to ensure that there’s transparency and accountability for the taxpayers of the province, so we’ll have more to say on that in the coming days.”

At the very least, it appears the regional fund dedicated to northern Ontario will be continued, according to Greg Rickford, who is minister of energy, mines, northern development and Indigenous affairs, in answering a question from Liberal MPP Michael Gravelle in question period Monday about the future of the fund.

“In just 10 more sleeps, the member will have some of the information that he might need,” Rickford replied, apparently referring to budget day on April 11. “I can assure him that the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund will continue to be a key driver for creating economic opportunities across northern Ontario …”

Van Geyn said the Canadian Taxpayers Federation considers the Ford government to be breaking its promise by not yet fully cancelling the Jobs and Prosperity Fund, and called out the Tories for decrying “corporate welfare” on the one hand while promising to keep regional economic development funds on the other.

“I don’t see a difference,” she said. “I think this is semantics and it’s splitting hairs, and if we have a $13.5-billion deficit in this province, we shouldn’t be handing out millions — tens of millions — of dollars to big companies that earn a profit.”

Van Geyn contrasted the needs of students in classrooms and children with autism with the decision to give auto companies tens of millions of dollars, as shown by a recent investment in Toyota totalling $110 million in provincial funds that was first announced by the former Liberal government, but continued and celebrated by Ford and his government.

“I think the government should stop seeing handing out money to giant profitable companies as something that needs to be done,” she said, adding that Queen’s Park should instead focus on lowering taxes to make Ontario a competitive place to do business.

The federation is also calling on the province to keep its election promise to lower taxes and eliminate the deficit within its current mandate, Van Geyn said.

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