TORONTO - Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne took steps Thursday to avoid a spring election by promising not to raise taxes on the middle class to fund public transit, but the opposition parties warned the Liberals could not be trusted to keep their word.
"I just want to be clear, we're taking those potential revenue tools off the table: increase in HST, increase in gas tax, increases in personal income tax for middle-income families," Wynne said at a campaign-style stop at a home in Toronto.
Wynne has vowed to find the "revenue tools" to raise the billions of dollars needed each year to upgrade and expand public transit in the heavily congested Toronto-to-Hamilton corridor, and an expert panel recommended several tax hikes as options.
The NDP had warned they would not support any moves to increase taxes on the middle class, but would not say Thursday if Wynne's promise was enough to get them to vote for the Liberal's upcoming budget and avoid a spring election.
"We're skeptical of the fact that this is another Liberal promise and we've seen many of their promises made and then broken," said New Democrat Jagmeet Singh. "We look at it with a grain of salt."
Wynne dismissed suggestions she was trying to secure NDP support for the budget for the third year in a row by saying she won't hike taxes on the middle class.
"This isn't about one party's perspective," she said. "I'm not talking to the NDP. I'm talking to families and individuals who are working very hard to make sure that they have the kind of life that they deserve."
The Progressive Conservatives, who have been warning voters that Wynne is planning to hike the gas tax 10 cents a litre to fund transit, said the Liberals promise one thing as an election approaches and then do the opposite afterwards.
"We've heard from the Liberal government before, no new taxes, and we ended up with the health tax and we ended up with the HST," said PC finance critic Vic Fedeli. "This is all about electioneering and trying to get her budget passed by buying off the support of the NDP."
It was the Tories "making mischief" about the gas tax and the HST that Wynne said prompted her to make the announcement about what the government would not do.
"The focus on HST and gas tax has been a decision made by the Opposition, a very targeted decision over the last couple of weeks," she said.
"So I'm saying this today just because the escalation of the focus on these very particular revenue tools has, I think, distorted the discussion, and so I just wanted to be clear that those are not things that we're going to do."
Wynne had earlier eliminated the idea of raising property taxes to fund transit, and suggested Thursday she would not increase corporate taxes either, but left the door open to new road tolls. The Liberals have already said they would proceed with letting drivers without passengers pay a toll to use High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.
"The thing about tolling is that it's always very important that there be a choice for people," said Wynne. "So if there's an alternative to taking a road that has a toll on it, then I think that meets the fairness test."
Ontario cannot wait to make investments in new transit and transportation infrastructure, "but whatever we do has to be fair," said Wynne.
"It's essential to the prosperity of local economies across the province, but I'm not going to ask the people in North Bay to pay for transit in the GTA."
The government will announce how it intends to raise the billions of dollars needed for public transit in the spring budget, and would create a new fund for infrastructure projects so people can see where and how the money is spent, added Wynne.
"There are new revenue tools, (there's) leveraging debt, there's the dedication of existing revenue tools, all of those things are part of the mix," she said.
The minority government needs the support of at least one of the opposition parties to get its budget passed or Ontario will be plunged into a general election campaign.
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