Billions of dollars are at stake in a simmering dispute pitting Ontario’s auditor general against the provincial government. With the spring budget looming, neither side is backing down.

Now, an outside panel of top accounting and pension experts has determined that auditor general Bonnie Lysyk has gone out on a fiscal limb by effectively wiping away nearly $11 billion in government assets, according to multiple sources.

But the auditor tells me she won’t climb down, setting the stage for a public showdown over an accounting change that is worth $1.5 billion to the bottom line this year alone.

The independent pension asset expert panel met her Friday to reveal their findings — explaining why they concluded the pension surplus is a legitimate asset on the government’s books. Their report will be made public later this month, giving Lysyk more breathing room to reconsider her position before the budget deadline.

The government — and all Ontarians — may pay a price for this seemingly arcane accounting dispute if the auditor’s controversial stance constrains its fiscal margin of manoeuvre, notably Liberal plans to reallocate funds for hydro relief or other spending. Fearing another credit downgrade from outside rating agencies, or an electoral downgrade from the official opposition, Premier Kathleen Wynne has turned a balanced budget into an article of faith.

But Wynne never accounted for an accounting dispute, which made her deficit elimination goal more complicated.

Lysyk announced last year that she was overturning the rules that allowed governments to book billions of dollars in surpluses for jointly run pensions deemed provincial assets. First implemented under a PC government, and carried over by the Liberals, the traditional auditor’s approach enhanced Ontario’s fiscal picture.

Now Lysyk has changed her mind. Yet she seems to be having it both ways.

It’s tempting to cast this as a political dispute between Liberal partisans and a politicized auditor. But that would be a misreading of the battle lines.

The most vociferous opposition to Lysyk’s position comes from