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Conservatives say Ontario Liberal government used 'fake' deficit figure

TORONTO - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives released cabinet documents Monday that they said show the Liberals misled the public for years with "fake" figures on the size of the province's deficit, a statement Finance Minister Charles Sousa dismissed as false.

The documents, prepared by Finance Ministry officials and given to a legislative committee, show the Liberals knew the $24.7-billion deficit figure they announced in 2009-10 "was never a real expectation" and was a deliberate move to provide a "worst case" outcome, said PC Leader Tim Hudak.

The Liberals then used a ruler to draw a straight line from that $24.7-billion figure down to zero in 2017-18, literally making up deficit reduction targets for the interim years with no real plan to achieve them, said Hudak.

"I worry when you're using these types of fiscal sleights of hand, these card tricks that undermine confidence in our province," he said. "And that means investment goes elsewhere, and so go the jobs."

Sousa wasn't in question period Monday, so it was left to deputy premier Deb Matthews to respond to the Conservatives' charges in the legislature.

"The Conservative party thinks that they can cut their way to prosperity (but) on this side, we believe in investing in people," said Matthews. "We believe in investing in infrastructure."

Hudak said it was "telling" that Matthews completely ignored the question on the "fake" deficit figures and instead lashed out at the previous PC government.

"Page nine in this document indicates that you had no plan to balance the budget," he said. "The numbers are no more than a fiction. The finance officials indicated it was going to take, potentially, another six years to balance the budget."

Matthews said the Liberals "were the first government since 1996 to actually reduce spending," and suggested they would worry more about making strategic investments in the upcoming budget rather than meeting short-term deficit reduction targets.

"There is a stark difference between their plan and our plan," she said. "For them, the holy grail is to balance the books as quickly as possible, no matter the cost to the people of this province."

Speaking later with reporters, Sousa said budget "projections and assumptions are just that," and insisted "the numbers that are brought forward by the government are audited by the auditor general."

The finance minister admitted he won't be able to meet deficit reduction targets originally set out for the next couple of years, but insisted that the minority Liberal government will be able to eliminate the red ink on schedule in three years.

"We are committed to balancing the books by 2017-18 ... but we're not going to do it at the expense of those programs that will ultimately provide economic growth," he said. "So if in the short term some of the targets aren't met, that is what we always said we would do."

Sousa also indicated the deficit for 2014-15 will be higher than last year's $11.3 billion when he presents the provincial budget on Thursday.

In a pre-budget speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto Monday, Wynne said the Liberals' plan would include a policy of investment and growth, knowing the minority government could be defeated on the budget vote, triggering an election.

"If there is an election this spring, the campaign will come down to a choice between our balanced approach to building on Ontario's success, and the risky and unproven tactics of the parties on the right and the left," she said.

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