TORONTO — Ontario's Liberal government used its majority Wednesday to pass the omnibus budget bill, which clears the way for the sale of Hydro One, the huge transmission utility.
The government hopes to raise $9 billion by selling 60 per cent of Hydro One, starting with 15 per cent this year, and will use $5 billion to pay down hydro debt and $4 billion on public transit and infrastructure projects.
"This was a difficult decision, but it is the right decision because if we do not do this, we cannot make the investments in transit and transportation infrastructure," Premier Kathleen Wynne told the legislature.
The Progressive Conservatives and NDP warned electricity prices will rise, the government will lose control of Hydro One and legislative watchdogs like the ombudsman and auditor general will lose oversight of the utility.
"You may think you're helping yourself politically by removing this oversight, in reality, without these checks, you will become more arrogant, more reckless, which will lead to even greater scandals," warned PC energy critic John Yakabuski. "Will you not save yourself from your party's own hubris and allow the auditor general and the ombudsman to continue to investigate Hydro One?"
Wynne said the Liberals took steps to protect the public by ensuring that no one individual will own more than 10 per cent of Hydro One, that the Ontario Energy Board will continue to set prices, and that the government would retain control of the utility by owning at least 40 per cent.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath flatly rejected the premier's arguments.
"Earth to premier: nobody believes any of that about the 40 per cent and about the 10 per cent," said Horwath. "Nobody believes any of that."
The sale of Hydro One will "benefit banks, off-shore investors and a small group of the premier's powerful friends," added Horwath, who wants a referendum so the public can approve — or reject — the Hydro One sale. The NDP caucus turned their backs on the governing Liberals as each MPP stood to vote against the budget bill.
"The government frankly is turning their backs on the people of Ontario, so we turned our backs to show the premier exactly what she's doing to the people," said Horwath.
The independent officers of the legislature — the ombudsman, auditor general, financial accountability officer, integrity commissioner and privacy commissioner — issued an unprecedented joint letter warning the budget bill "will significantly reduce important oversight powers" they had over Hydro One.
Ombudsman Andre Marin recently released a scathing report into 10,700 complaints about erroneous bills and "abominable" customer service by Hydro One, something he warned he will no longer have the power to investigate.
People also won't be able to find out if Ontario taxpayers still pay for 81 per cent of pension contributions by Hydro One workers, thousands of whom were on the so-called sunshine list of public sector workers paid over $100,000 a year. They will no longer appear on the sunshine list, but they were given shares in the agency in a proposed new contract, even before shares are for sale to the public.
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