In accordance with the Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly, seven seats did not accord the NDP Official Party status, which affected their participation in debate and question period in the House, their status in committees and their funding by the Assembly. It even affected their ability to be referred as the New Democratic Party in the House as they were each considered independent members. An agreement was reached in December 2003 regarding their participation in debates and in committees as well as their funding despite their lack of party status.
Due to the unfortunate and untimely death of Domenic Agostino, long serving Liberal member for Hamilton East, a by-election was held on May 13, 2004. Andrea Horwath for the New Democratic Party was elected. This provided the NDP with sufficient seats to regain their Official Party status. The current standing in the House is the Liberal party with 71 seats, the Progressive Conservatives with 24 and the NDP with 8 seats.
Following the general election in October 2003, the 38th Parliament was convened on November 19, 2003. The first order of business was the election of the Speaker and Alvin Curling, Member for Scarborough-Rouge River was duly elected. Mr. Curling is a member of the Liberal Party and was a former Cabinet member during the Peterson government in the 1980's.
During the campaign the PCs had promised a balanced budget and a continued emphasis on fiscal responsibility and cutting taxes. The Liberals had campaigned on, among other things, increasing program spending without raising taxes. During the campaign, Dalton McGuinty had publicly signed a pledge to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation not to raise taxes.
When the Liberals took office, they asked the former Provincial Auditor to examine and to provide an opinion on the status of the finances of the province. The former Auditor reported, in his opinion, an anticipated budget deficit of $5.6 billion.
The Throne Speech on November 20, 2003 outlined an ambitious agenda to improve health care, education, and the improvement of communities with the proviso that dealing with the projected budget deficit would delay or alter some plans. The Legislature would be asked to take immediate action on the inherited deficit with measures leading to keeping a core commitment of achieving a balanced budget.
One of the priorities of the government was stated to be excellence in education with a number of initiatives to improve literacy, education standards, relations between the province and the school boards and teachers and a freeze on post-secondary school tuition fees for two years. Other priorities were outlined to protect and improve universal, public medicare and to start with reform in primary health care, to improve the economy and strengthen communities and to introduce ambitious democratic renewal legislation. A Minister of Democratic Renewal had already been appointed who would introduce legislation to promote transparency and accountability in the public sector.
Legislation that was introduced and received Royal Assent before the winter recess included:
* Bill 2, the Fiscal Responsibility Act that provided measures to address the deficit. The corporate tax rate was increased and scheduled tax rate reductions were repealed. The Equity in Education Tax Credit, which provided a tax credit for a portion of fees paid by parents who send a child to private school, was repealed. The Seniors Home Property Tax Relief credit, which provided seniors with a tax credit reflecting the education portion of their home property tax, was repealed. Tobacco taxes were increased. Personal income tax rates were maintained and planned reductions to that rate were cancelled.
* The Ontario Energy Board Amendment Act (Electricity Pricing) introduced measures to provide stable and predictable electricity prices to encourage conservation, create environmental benefits and attract new sources of supply. The act removed the current price freeze and instituted interim prices effective April 1, 2004. The first 750 kwh utilized by a consumer would be priced at 4.7 cents/kwh and any subsequent kilowatt hours would be priced at 5.5 cents/kwh.
* The Automobile Insurance Rate Stabilization Act imposed a temporary freeze on automobile insurance rates for private passenger vehicles and prevented further rate approvals by insurers for 90 days. Every insurer would have to reapply for rate approvals and no rate or risk classification changes could be implemented without the Superintendent of Financial Services approval.
* The Supply Act to authorize expenditures to March 31, 2004 received Royal Assent on December 18, 2003.
Legislation introduced and passed during the spring session included:
* Commitment to the Future of Medicare Act to entrench accountability as a principle of health care along with accessibility, universality, portability, comprehensiveness and public administration and to create a provincial Health Quality Council to monitor and report on health care indicators in the system and to ensure that new hospitals remain publicly owned, controlled and accountable.
* The Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act that would make employees of Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation subject to the salary disclosure rules as public servants and to Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy rules.
* The Greenbelt Protection Act was a joint announcement by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and the Minister of the Environment to introduce legislation to contain urban sprawl and encourage smart growth by protecting a permanent greenbelt in the Golden Horseshoe area by freezing new zoning for rural and agricultural land.
* The MPP Salary Freeze Act froze MPPs salary until April 2005. MPP salary rates are set on the recommendation of the Integrity commissioner who had recommended a raise of 2.7% for the current year. Premier McGuinty asked his fellow MPPs to approve the salary freeze as an example to the public service to temper their requests of the public purse.
The first budget of the new government was passed on June 17, 2004. The Minister of Finance promised to eliminate Ontario's structural deficit and balance the budget in fiscal year 2007-08. The budget provided for investments in community based health care, long term care, mental health and home care along with investments in education, public transit and infrastructure. The minimum wage and Ontario Disability Support payments were to be increased by 3% and a free vaccination program for children for inoculations against chicken pox, meningitis and pneumonia was to be implemented.
The budget also announced that optometry exams and chiropractic and physiotherapy services were to be delisted from standard OHIP coverage. However, the measure that generated the most interest was the imposition of a Health Care Premium on Ontarians. This premium is based on income and taxpayers would pay up to $900 per year dependent on income. This created the most feedback as the Premier had publicly promised not to raise taxes and to do so would be contrary to campaign promises and to the Taxpayer Protection Act brought in by the previous government, which prohibited tax increases or the establishment of a new tax unless authorized by a referendum.
On June 1, 2004, the Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal introduced the Election Statute Law Amendment Act, which would provide for fixed dates for provincial general elections. The next date for the provincial election would be Thursday, October 4, 2007 (unless a general election has been held sooner because the Lieutenant Governor has dissolved the Legislature). Thereafter, regular general elections will always be held on the first Thursday in October in the fourth calendar year following the most recent general election.
The House recessed on Thursday, June 24 but was called back on Tuesday, June 29, 2004 for one day to deal with matters relating to authorization for Committee meetings during the summer recess and to give third reading to a number of bills including a bill to amend the Employment Standards Act to allow for family medical leave without pay for a period of up to eight weeks for care for family members with a serious medical condition and a significant risk of death.
The House is scheduled to resume on Tuesday October 12, 2004.
During the winter recess the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs toured the province on pre-budget consultations and produced a report of recommendations. It also dealt with legislation to freeze automobile insurance rates, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the Budget Measures Act and the Emergency Services providers Insurance Protection Act. The Committee is meeting during the summer recess to conduct a review of the Final Report of the Five Year Review Committee dealing with legislation, regulations and rules relating to matters dealt with under the Ontario Securities Act.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Social Policy traveled to conduct public hearings on the Commitment to the Future of Medicare Act during the winter recess.
The Standing Committee on General Government traveled around the province to conduct public hearings on a bill dealing with the Health Information Protection Act. This bill was reviewed after receiving first reading in the House, was reported back to the House and the Committee met again after second reading for clause-by-clause consideration. It dealt with legislation on the Greenbelt Protection Act and during the summer recess will travel around the province conducting public hearings into amendments to the Planning Act.
During the summer recess, the Standing Committee on Social Policy, which is a new committee created along with the Standing Committee on Justice Policy when the House split the former Justice and Social Policy committee into two separate committees, is meeting to hold public hearings and clause-by-clause consideration of Bill 100, which is intended to restructure the electricity generation, delivery and regulatory system in Ontario. It intends to stabilize electricity prices, increase electricity generation and phase out coal-fired generation plants and to deliver reliable, affordable electricity and to encourage conservation by removing the electricity price freeze.
The Standing Committee on Justice Policy is holding public hearings to review the adequacy of Ontario emergency management statutes during the summer. This is in response to concerns raised by the Commissioner of Emergency Management. Its mandate includes adopting the text of a draft bill for introduction for First Reading in the House to deal with matters raised during the hearings.
The Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly conducted orientation sessions for its members on the multi-faceted Terms of Reference for the committee including the oversight role of the Office of the Ombudsman. It also held hearings and clause-by-clause consideration on the Adams Lake Mine Act which prohibits the disposal of waste at the Adams Mine site, an abandoned open pit mine located approximately 10 kilometres southeast of the Town of Kirkland Lake. The Bill also amends the Environmental Protection Act to prohibit a person from operating a waste disposal site if any part of the site is located in a lake.