They’re back and should be busier than ever.
MPPs return to the legislature Tuesday after the Christmas break with a full slate on their plates.
“We’re moving at breakneck speed on all kinds of stuff. We’re going to have a robust schedule when the house resumes,” government house leader Todd Smith said in an interview Friday.
First up will be a revised version of Bill 66 to eliminate an amendment to the Planning Act that would have allowed municipalities to bypass existing development requirements and restrictions for companies creating jobs.
Projects would have been granted expedited provincial approvals within one year, allowing businesses to begin construction, but critics warned that would have put prime farmland and the 1.8-million acre Greenbelt around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area at risk.
Smith said another piece of legislation in the days ahead will be Health Minister Christine Elliott’s bill to reorganize the health-care system.
A draft version — which confirmed the incorporation of a new “super agency” called Health Program Initiatives that the Star revealed in January — was leaked to the NDP and a mid-level bureaucrat was fired Feb. 4 for the breach.
While the New Democrats claim the bill will usher in additional privatization to health care in Ontario, Elliott has dismissed that as “fear mongering.”
Also expected this month are potentially controversial bills on policing oversight from Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones and on schools from Education Minister Lisa Thompson.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has already called for the resignation of Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod over the Tories’ contentious revamping of funding for autism services, warned the government is in for a bumpy ride on many fronts.
Horwath pledged to “fight for the services people care about, whether that’s young people, whether that’s children with autism, whether that’s our public health system that we so fiercely want to defend, that’s what we’re going to be doing.”
“Doug Ford is not the king of Ontario. He has to answer for his actions,” she said Friday.
With such rhetoric, Smith conceded it should be an emotionally charged session.
“They scream that the sky is falling no matter what we do. They seem to be a protest party and they like to plan protests,” the house leader said of the New Democrats.
Still, Smith said autism funding is “a tough file” and the Tories are bracing for the issue to dominate question period this week.
The opposition parties will also be hammering the government over its bid to appoint Toronto police Supt. Ron Taverner, a 72-year-old friend of Ford’s, as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
That OPP posting is now subject of an ethics investigation by integrity commissioner J. David Wake.
Horwath said she will be highlighting the “tidal wave of criticism” over the appointment.
The government, which took office last June, is also looking ahead to its first budget.
Although Ford has promised to cut 4 per cent of spending — the equivalent of $6 billion on a $150 billion budget — he’s insisted “not one job” will be lost as the Tories move toward balancing the books.
“We’re going to be responsible. If it takes a year longer, so be it,” the premier said Thursday, referring to the timetable for being back in the black.
“I’ve said over and over again, I’m not going in there hacking and slashing, and with a chainsaw cutting it up. It’s not going to happen under our administration. We’re going to find efficiencies.”
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, who is hoping to reduce a $13.5 billion deficit, is signalling Ontarians to gird for austerity measures.
“We have to start with the understanding that the previous government was spending $40 million a day more than they brought in,” said Fedeli of the Liberals of former premier Kathleen Wynne.
“We know that in this budget we must also indicate our path to balance. It’s mandatory in this budget,” he said, declining to tip his hand on when the province will be out of the red.
“I like to use my Goldilocks reference: it won’t be too soon, because, quite frankly, nobody would believe it; it won’t be too long, because anybody can do that; it will be just right.”
Asked what that means, Fedeli smiled and said: “It means that the 2019 budget will see a detailed path to balance.”
With files from Rob Ferguson
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie