TORONTO - Ontario hopes to get out of the red sooner than in the eight years projected in last week's budget, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said Monday, prompting opposition critics to accuse him of playing games with the numbers.
Duncan told a business audience that the budget built in a significant amount of potential fiscal room that should make that possible. "We want to get back to balance as quickly as we can (and) we certainly want to achieve the targets we set out but, Duncan said.
"(But) I would like to exceed the goals we have set out."
Speaking to the Empire Club, Duncan said any uptick in revenues would go toward bringing down the province's deficit of $110 billion over eight years.
He wouldn't say how likely a drop in the eight-year estimate was, adding that any progress would become clear through annual targets and updates.
The finance minister's comments come after the Liberals announced a day before the budget that the deficit would be several billion dollars below the record $24.7-billion deficit they had forecast last fall.
Currently, the province is projecting a $21.3-billion shortfall for the year ending March 31.
Duncan credited increased revenues "across the board," including higher corporate and sales taxes, for the smaller deficit projection.
The opposition, however, accused the Liberal government of playing with the numbers to make themselves look good.
"They would have known well in advance about the change in the budget numbers that were just presented last week," said Progressive Conservative finance critic Norm Miller.
"It's about managing expectations, so they make things out to be bad enough and then they slightly improve and we're supposed to think they're good managers."
An eight-year time frame in itself isn't credible, Miller added, since a lot can happen in that time - including two elections.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath questioned what other budget projections or items might change after Duncan's latest musings.
"It's a credibility gap that I think is a serious one," she said.
"It makes you wonder what else that they announced on budget day is real and what's not real."
TD economist Don Drummond said a shorter timeline to return to balance is possible, adding he wouldn't be shocked if the Liberals balanced the books a year or two earlier than now planned.
"It's a long way out," Drummond said. "A lot of things could change vis a vis the assumptions by then."
Hinting at an adjusted forecast just days after the budget suggests Duncan may have taken some lesson from fellow Liberal and former federal finance minister Paul Martin, Drummond said.
"Paul Martin was: 'Make the message as ugly as you possibly can, and always do better,"' Drummond said.
"If you want to have a pretty high probability of doing better, you're going to make the initial forecast look pretty bad."
Duncan did concede the government is going to have to temper its wish to get out of deficit with expenditure demands, especially from the health-care and education sectors.