TORONTO - Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will include a timetable to completely eliminate Ontario's record $24.7-billion deficit in the March 25 provincial budget.

Unlike the recent federal budget, which still showed a small deficit after five years, Ontario is required by law to spell out exactly how long it will take to eliminate the red ink.

Duncan has already said it will take longer than five years to get back to balanced budgets.

Scotiabank chief economist Warren Jestin said recently that it would take a lot of hard work for the province to eliminate the deficit within seven years.

"The slow growth that we're predicting in the future is going to lead to a very long period of deficit turnaround," Jestin told the legislature's finance committee.

"Doing it in five to seven years would be an extraordinary achievement in the type of growth environment we see."

A recent forecast from the Royal Bank of Canada predicted Ontario would see growth of 3.3 per cent this year and 4.1 per cent next year, which would mean greatly increased revenues for the province.

"I'm not going to become euphoric or excited," Premier Dalton McGuinty said in reaction to the forecast last Friday. "But I remain cautiously optimistic."

The Liberal's throne speech opening the spring session on March 8 said the government would not slash spending indiscriminately to eliminate the deficit, especially with a fragile economic recovery which has been slow to create jobs.

"Your government will not put economic growth at risk by cutting too much too soon," read Lt. Gov. David Onley from the speech.

"Nor will it proceed with spending as if there is no deficit."

One huge problem for all governments is the growing cost of health care, which already accounts for 46 cents of every dollar the province spends. It could rapidly escalate in coming years as baby boomers start hitting retirement age if nothing is done to control costs.

The government has already talked about new models for funding hospitals, and the budget is expected to provide more details showing what the Liberals have in mind.

The budget will also include $17 billion as the second phase of the province's economic stimulus package, but McGuinty has warned the business world that's the end of the stimulus funding.

"We're going to continue to prime the pump to create those jobs in Ontario communities," said McGuinty. "Next year, the baton is over to you guys. We're no longer going to be priming that pump."

The budget will show a new emphasis on developing clean water technologies that can be marketed around the world, which dovetails with last year's Green Energy Act - legislation seeking to take advantage of a growing demand for renewable forms of energy.

The budget will also show how much the government expects to take in from the harmonized sales tax, which kicks in July 1. The Liberals say the 13 per cent HST, combined with corporate and income tax cuts that started Jan. 1, will help Ontario businesses recover more quickly from the recession and start hiring people again.

The throne speech outlined a five-year economic recovery plan that will be fleshed out in the budget, including the cost of adding 20,000 spaces at colleges and universities this fall.

The government wants to boost the level of post-secondary education, and plans to greatly increase the number of foreign students to help raise money.