By Jeff Labine
The Chronicle-Journal
Published: Sept. 13, 2016

Ontario’s Liberal government is promising to take the provincial portion of the HST off hydro bills for homes and small businesses.

The promise was made during the throne speech on Monday, which introduced a rebate for consumers of about eight per cent. For average households, this means an average savings of $130 a year.

The change, once passed, would come into effect Jan. 1, 2017.

The rural support program, which aims to help eligible rural customers with on-bill savings, is also expected to be boosted. The additional savings is expected to be 20 per cent, or $45 a month.

The throne speech was delivered after Premier Kathleen Wynne prorogued parliament last week following a defeat by the hands of the Progressive Conservatives in a byelection in southern Ontario.

Bill Mauro, Liberal MPP for Thunder Bay-Atikokan, said the rural support program has been an item he’s been pursuing for some time and was thrilled to see it included.

He said those living in low density areas, which he believes makes up most of the North, will be able to benefit from the program.

The eight per cent cut has already seen criticism, especially from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and many other organizations who believe the rebate won’t be enough to offset the increases to hydro.

Mauro said he had those questions as well, when he was briefed. He explained that the energy minister will be able to take another look at the announcements in the throne speech through the legislature later on.

“It’s a very fair question and one I asked myself,” he said.

“I was assured by the minister that this can be relooked at beginning Jan. 1, 2018. As a Northern member, it is a piece that I have been advocating for some time. This is not a starting point for us. We have had a number of programs in place for some time that have been providing relief to people. We have been listening. We have programs that are currently in place and have been in place for a number of years.”

Vic Fedeli, PC MPP for Nipissing, called the throne speech disappointing and the moves to reduce energy bills desperate. He didn’t believe taking the provincial portion of the HST off hydro bills will be enough.

“That’s a little too late for those, especially in the North, where we face significant rate increases and there’s plenty more on the horizon,” he said. “If you look at what the financial accountability officer said, he told us that since 2010, our hydro rates have climbed $295 every year. So this doesn’t even cover half of the latest increase.”

If the Progressive Conservatives took charge, Fedeli said their first acts would be to cancel the remainder of the sale of Hydro One and stop the purchasing of new energy contracts.

John Vanthof, NDP MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane, welcomed the eight per cent cut to hydro bills since it was his party that has been the ones most vocal about it.

“The Liberals are under a lot of pressure on the electricity file because I think they are finally waking up to the fact that a lot of people in this province are struggling because of the electricity bills are outstripping their capacity to pay them,” he said.

“A good idea is a good idea and the NDP has lots of good ideas. If the Liberals want to continue stealing them, maybe we can make a dent in people’s electricity bills. The sad part is the government of the day didn’t realize how big of an issue this was until their own future was threatened. They lost the election in Scarborough. I question the changes they are making to hydro – and we agree with some of them – are for the people of Ontario or for their own future.”

Vanthof was also supportive of the rural support program if low density areas would be able to apply.

While a lot of attention was on energy, the Liberals also promised that over the next five years that around 5,000 kilometres of highways will be built or repaved and 750 bridges will be built, repaired or rebuilt. About 2,400 kilometres of the highways and 200 of the bridges mentioned are expected to be in Northern Ontario.

Mauro added the province will continue to invest in infrastructure, including mass transit, which impacts Bombardier.