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Provincial finance ministers look to Ottawa for spending clarity

Minister of Finance Joe Oliver and Minister of State Kevin Sorenson meet with provincial counterparts in Ottawa Wednesday.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Provincial finance ministers want Ottawa to clarify the rules around its multibillion-dollar infrastructure spending program, arguing they are running out of time to plan for projects.

Concern over the Building Canada Fund was a common theme as ministers from across the country met with federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver for the first time Wednesday via a video-conference call.

It has been more than a year since Ottawa announced the $14-billion fund as part of its 2013 budget, which highlighted the 10-year spending plan. The fund officially launched on April 1 of this year and Edmonton received the first announcement May 26 to fund a light-rail extension.

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However, finance ministers agreed with municipal leaders who have said it is still not clear how to apply for funding.

"There needs to be greater clarification," said Saskatchewan Finance Minister Ken Krawetz, who notes that governments need to know how much they can expect for each fiscal year. "These are things that are going to be very, very important to us."

A spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, who is responsible for the fund, said announcements have already started are more will follow in the next few weeks.

"The new program works exactly like the original one," said spokesperson Vincent Rabault.

For Mr. Oliver, the meeting was the first time he has spoken with his provincial and territorial colleagues as a group since he was named finance minister in March.

There has been a significant change in provincial politics since federal and provincial finance ministers last met face to face in December. Ontario and Quebec – Canada's two most populous and most indebted provinces – have elected majority Liberal governments that are promising major infrastructure improvements.

Federal Conservatives have welcomed the election results in Quebec, which saw the Liberals oust the Parti Québécois. However, there is deep and long-held animosity between Ontario Liberals and federal Conservatives.

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne kicked off her election campaign by criticizing the federal government for refusing to support an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan. Ms. Wynne has said she will be reintroducing her 2014 budget, which includes a pledge to launch an Ontario pension plan that is meant to top up the CPP for Canadians who do not have a workplace pension.

Mr. Oliver was among the federal Conservatives who fired back at Ms. Wynne during the campaign, criticizing the Liberals' deficit spending and warning against new pension premiums that could hurt the economy.

Mr. Oliver suggested Wednesday it was time to turn the page with Ontario.

"The new government ran on their budget. They were elected. They're entitled in a democracy to implement their platform," he said. "We have a certain approach to fiscal policy and maybe this isn't the time to emphasize differences."

Over all, Mr. Oliver said his message to the finance ministers was that they should move as quickly as possible to erase all remaining deficits and cut taxes to spur economic growth. Mr. Oliver made clear that the federal government has no plans to support an increase in mandatory pension savings.

Prince Edward Island Finance Minister Wes Sheridan, who has long urged Ottawa to support CPP expansion, said Ottawa should drop its resistance in light of the "big endorsement" Ontario voters gave to an expanded pension plan.

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"I made the point very clearly that this was something that the federal government should keep their eye on," said Mr. Sheridan, who is discussing the possibility of working with Ontario on a separate pension plan.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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