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Liberals try do-over with budget that triggered June 12 election

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TORONTO - The governing Liberals are presenting their do-over budget Monday, a big-spending plan that triggered the June 12 election after the opposition parties rejected it.

Although a debt-rating agency has signalled concerns about the government's ability to balance the books, the re-elected Liberals say they're not changing a thing and won't even bother to put a new cover on the 368-page book.

Moody's changed its outlook on the province's debt rating after the Liberals returned with a majority government, but the Liberals say the rating agencies are pleased with the election results.

"In fact, they have stated that one of the concerns that existed was the instability of government in order to implement the very things that we're saying we want to propose," said Finance Minister Charles Sousa.

"And having a majority mandate now gives us a little bit more initiative to implement things and expedite them more quickly than what we had before."

The highlights of the $119.4-billion fiscal plan remain the same: $130 billion for infrastructure over a decade — including $29 billion for public transit and transportation projects — a made-in-Ontario pension plan, $2.5 billion over 10 years in corporate grants to lure businesses to the province and $1 billion to build a transportation route to the Ring of Fire mineral deposit in the north.

But there were a slew of details fleshed out during the election campaign that didn't get much attention.

Over the next six years, the Liberals are planning to expand the outer boundary of the Greenbelt — about 800,000 hectares of protected land that largely encompasses an area from Peterborough around the western end of Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls — a move some say will hurt farmers.

It restricts the use of their land, which is putting many animal farmers out of business, and devalues their property because it can't be developed, said Tom Black, president of the Ontario Landowners Association.

"If you've got somebody that's living close to a city, that land is worth millions and millions of dollars," he said. "So the value of your land goes to virtually a quarter of its market value once they designate you."

He said he agrees that Ontario shouldn't be covering up farmland with cities, but the Greenbelt hasn't stopped that because developers are just going outside the designated land.

The Liberals also plan to regulate crowdfunding, create five new business start-up hubs and provide interest-free loans to expand access of rural communities to natural gas supplies in an effort to quell concerns about higher hydro costs.

Another pledge was changing the building code to allow six-storey wood-frame buildings.

It's about 10 per cent less expensive than concrete or steel, so the move will make mid-rise buildings more affordable and spur more housing development to densify city cores, said the Ontario Home Builders' Association.

Safety isn't an issue since the sprinkler requirements for the six-storey wood-frame buildings are more advanced than the rules applied to concrete buildings, the group said.

On the health side, the Liberals are pledging to fund 20 more hospices, cap or cut hospital parking fees for frequent visitors and patients and provide more "culturally appropriate care" in hospitals, such as different food and better translation services.

They're also focusing on schools, providing more resources to help high-school students plan their path to a desired career, including revamping the curriculum for the mandatory Grade 10 careers class and giving Grade 7 to 12 students access to their own online career planning tool.

They're putting in $150 million over three years to provide new technology learning tools, like digital tablets, netbooks, cameras and software for classrooms, and spending $10 million on a nine-month paid community work and service program for graduating high-school students.

They also plan to revamp the Grade 10 Civics curriculum to get students more involved in their communities and introduce voter registration in high schools.

But the Progressive Conservatives say the budget is just a "hodgepodge" of new programs and spending that Ontario can't afford.

"We're on a road like the Europeans and Greece were at one time where they ignored these warnings from the bankers and the credit raters and we can't do that," said interim Tory Leader Jim Wilson.

The New Democrats plan to vote against the budget, which some see as tailor-made for the party, even though it's virtually certain to pass.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she's concerned that the Liberals won't address skyrocketing electricity costs and are planning to sell off provincial assets and lay off public sector workers as they struggle to slay the $12.5-billion deficit in three years.

"The list is long when you scratch below the surface and see the problems with that budget," she said.

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