Growth in government debt in Ontario hasn’t stopped—in fact, it hasn’t even slowed

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, May 3, 2017

Last week, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa announced that after nine straight deficits, the government’s operating budget would finally be balanced for the coming fiscal year.

Some people might assume that when their government says the budget is balanced, that means the government isn’t adding any more debt. But that’s not the case. In fact, governments can (and often do) add significant new debt to their books even during years when the operating budget is balanced.

Confused? Don’t be. Here’s how they do it. The government separates capital spending on infrastructure from its operating budget, for accounting purposes. Although the government will stop adding new debt from spending on day-to-day operations such as salaries, programs and income transfers, it will continue adding new debt from spending on long-term projects such as roads and bridges.

But in a highly indebted province such as Ontario, it’s important to pay attention to all new debt added to government books—not just debt from the operating budget. Ultimately, the interest payments on all debt, whether it comes from capital spending or day-to-day expenditures, must be repaid by the same taxpayer.

Given that Ontario has seen its net debt approximately double over the past decade and already holds more debt than any other sub-national government in the world, further increases in debt should be taken seriously.

So let’s look at the numbers, with an eye on last week’s budget. Over the past three years, Ontario’s net debt has increased by $34.8 billion. Over the next three years, the province expects to add $34.0 billion in debt—almost exactly the same amount.

In this context, the government’s rhetoric—that a balanced operating budget has dawned a new fiscal day and the province can now afford to spend more freely—rings hollow. The reality isn’t just that Ontario has failed to stop adding to its debt, the rate of debt accumulation hasn’t even slowed down noticeably from what has occurred in recent years.

So who will bear the cost of all this debt accumulation? The simple answer is you, the taxpayer. And that cost is significant. This year, the government expects to spend $11.6 billion just paying interest on its debt. None of this money actually pays down any debt, it merely services the debt we currently have.

By comparison, the province now spends about $8.4 billion on post-secondary education and training. In other words, it spends more of your tax dollars servicing its big debt than it does educating the young people in our college and universities.

And debt charges are expected to keep climbing—from $11.6 billion this year to $12.6 billion two years from now. In fact, over the next three years, provincial debt charges are expected to be the fastest growing major spending category in the provincial budget. More and more money will be eaten up by interest payments, leaving less and less available for other priorities such as health care, education or tax relief.

Ontario remains a heavily indebted province and, despite a balanced budget, the accumulation of debt has not stopped—it hasn’t even slowed down. And today’s taxpayers, as well as future generations of Ontarians, are—and will be—stuck with the bill.

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