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Ontario Liberals promise to put unspent money towards lowering debt

TORONTO — The Ontario Liberals promised new legislation on Saturday that would reduce the province's debt, saying they were presenting the only realistic financial plan between the three major parties.

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne said that in years when the province beats its own fiscal projections — something she noted her party has done for the past four years — the proposed legislation would require 100 per cent of unspent money to go towards reducing debt.

The governing Liberals made the promise as they launched their full campaign platform, much of which was similar to the government's latest budget released in March.

The promise to use unspent money to reduce debt comes amid rhetoric from Wynne that writes off the New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives as having economically unfeasible plans for government. She took particular aim at the NDP, which both the Liberals and Tories have labelled as radical.

"We've got some really good momentum in terms of our economy, so we do not need ... to have policies from a government in Ontario that are going to slow that down," Wynne said Saturday during a campaign event in Toronto. "That's what I'm worried about when I look at what the NDP are suggesting."

The Liberals have also taken their fair share of criticism, however, particularly over the ballooning provincial debt during their time in power.

In March, Ontario's publicly held debt for 2018-19 was projected at $337.4 billion — up from $285.4 billion in 2014-15.

The Liberals promised for years, after a decade of deficits, to return Ontario to the black by 2017-18. They did — presenting a balanced budget that year — but promptly plunged the province back into deficit in this year’s budget with a host of new spending promises. They now project a $6.7-billion deficit in 2018-2019, with no plan to return to balance until 2024-2025.

Wynne pushed back against her opponents' critiques on Saturday, noting that Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has yet to release a detailed fiscal plan, and alleging that NDP leader Andrea Horwath's is full of errors.

The Liberals, who are running far back in third place according to multiple polls, have also accused the Tories of using consumer-friendly promises to distract voters from their lack of a platform.

In a move aimed at beer drinkers, Ford promised this weekend he would set the minimum price of a bottle at $1 plus deposit if elected.

The Liberals said the policy is akin to the Tories proposal to sell beer at corner stores, which the party introduced a day after allegations were raised about it potentially benefiting from stolen toll-highway data.

"Ford's Conservative team is promising cheap beer instead of explaining his expensive promises," read a Saturday release from the Liberals.

"At this rate, he’ll show up for Sunday's leaders' debate with a carton of smokes and a round of shooters for voters."

In response to that attack, Progressive Conservative spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman said Ford trusts consumers and retailers to make responsible choices about the sale of alcohol.

"It's time for the government to stop gouging the people," Lantsman said in an email. "Change is coming and help is on the way."

Meantime, an association that promotes the interests of licensed brewers said it was committed to working with the next government of Ontario to sell their products in a socially responsible way.

"In terms of price, almost half (44 per cent) of the price of beer in Ontario is tax," read a statement from Canada's National Brewers. "It's simple — the best way to lower beer prices is to lower the tax on beer."

The three major parties are now preparing for the final leaders' debate on Sunday, and have less than two weeks to go until voting day on June 7.

Wynne acknowledged her party is clearly in third place at this point in the campaign, but said there's still time to bounce back.

"It's a big hill. I know we have a big hill," Wynne said. "But we've been in tough places before, so what I'm going to do is fight our way back." 

Salmaan Farooqui and Maija Kappler, The Canadian Press

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