Bor­ing bud­get a lit­tle thin in key ar­eas

The Amherst News - - OP-ED - Jim Vibert Jim Vibert, a jour­nal­ist and writer for longer than he cares to ad­mit, con­sulted or worked for five Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ments. He now keeps a close and crit­i­cal eye on provin­cial and re­gional pow­ers.

Nova Sco­tians are start­ing to reap the fruit from hard labour putting the prov­ince’s fi­nances in or­der, but crit­ics have a case that it’s a mea­gre yield.

Tues­day’s provin­cial bud­get spreads new spend­ing around. The dol­lars fell thick on ed­u­ca­tion, so some other crit­i­cal ar­eas got only the thinnest of lay­ers.

Just six months ago, one of the govern­ment’s five key pri­or­i­ties was sup­port for an aging pop­u­la­tion, but the cur­rent bud­get vir­tu­ally ig­nores the mas­sive de­mo­graphic shift whereby al­most one in three Nova Sco­tians will be over 65, and the num­ber of cit­i­zens over 80 will more than dou­ble, within a decade.

Se­nior govern­ment of­fi­cials say plan­ning is well along to meet the un­prece­dented chal­lenges pre­sented by the grey­ing of the pop­u­la­tion, yet the cur­rent bud­get pro­vides only an ad­di­tional $5.5 mil­lion to beef up home care for se­niors.

The prov­ince hasn’t added a nurs­ing home bed since 2014. New Brunswick, with a sim­i­lar pop­u­la­tion pro­file and 20 per cent fewer peo­ple than Nova Sco­tia, will add 1,000 new nurs­ing home beds over the next few years.

Nova Sco­tia, on the other hand, is drag­ging its feet in ap­prov­ing even the re­place­ment of aging nurs­ing homes. The de­lays are un­fath­omable be­cause there is no ad­di­tional cost to the prov­ince for a new bed in a mod­ern fa­cil­ity when it re­places a bed in an out­dated build­ing.

Men­tal health ser­vices are an­other crit­i­cal need met by a to­ken re­sponse.

An ad­di­tional $2.9 mil­lion was all the govern­ment could find to aug­ment men­tal health ser­vices, bring­ing an­nual spend­ing to $287 mil­lion. The in­crease seems espe­cially mean when mea­sured against the time Nova Sco­tians wait to ac­cess men­tal health ser­vices. Adults, in non-emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, will wait any­where from a cou­ple of months to a full year for men­tal health treat­ment, de­pend­ing on which part of the prov­ince they call home. Chil­dren fair a lit­tle bet­ter, wait­ing any­where from one to six months for non-emer­gency men­tal health ser­vices.

Last year, the prov­ince un­der­spent its men­tal health and ad­dic­tions bud­get, which sug­gests that the prob­lem is in plan­ning and per­son­nel rather than dol­lars and cents, so maybe the prov­ince is hold­ing off spend­ing in­creases un­til there is a plan for the bucks.

The govern­ment points out that it is adding men­tal health re­sources else­where, espe­cially in schools, but in the health sys­tem the one per cent fund­ing in­crease just keeps pace with in­fla­tion.

On the bright side, the prov­ince was able to ap­ply some grease to the squeaki­est wheel in health care, thanks in large mea­sure to a one-time wind­fall in off­shore rev­enues. It ear­marked al­most $40 mil­lion to give fam­ily doc­tors a raise and an in­cen­tive to snatch pa­tients off the long list of Nova Sco­tians look­ing for a doc­tor. Al­most half that money comes from the off­shore jack­pot.

And, af­ter en­dur­ing a late win­ter lam­bast­ing for ad­min­is­tra­tive changes to pub­lic schools, the govern­ment seems de­ter­mined to be­gin the heal­ing in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

The num­ber of pre-pri­mary classes will in­crease by 130, to 184, thanks to a $17.6 mil­lion fund­ing in­fu­sion. Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials say this year’s ex­pan­sion of the pop­u­lar pro­gram gets the prov­ince about half way to its goal of pro­vid­ing pre-pri­mary to all four-year old kids in Nova Sco­tia.

The bud­get also al­lo­cated, for the sec­ond suc­ces­sive year, $10 mil­lion for class­room im­prove­ments to be de­ter­mined by the coun­cil es­tab­lished for that pur­pose. It also sets aside $15 mil­lion to im­ple­ment rec­om­men­da­tions that will come as early as Mon­day in the re­port of the com­mis­sion on in­clu­sion.

Tues­day’s bud­get boasts the third straight sur­plus from the Lib­eral govern­ment, and the fi­nan­cial plan re­leased with the doc­u­ments pre­dicts balanced bud­gets out to 2021-22.

Of those sur­pluses, this year’s may be the most pre­car­i­ous. A full two-thirds of the $29 mil­lion sur­plus is rolled into $20 mil­lion in ex­pected cannabis tax rev­enue. That es­ti­mate is based on cannabis sales be­gin­ning in July. If le­gal­iza­tion is de­layed, as now seems likely, that tax rev­enue could go up in smoke.

Tues­day’s bud­get was pre­dictable from a govern­ment early in its sec­ond man­date, and char­ac­ter­is­tic of the govern­ment Stephen McNeil leads. It was safe, with no new taxes ex­cept those on cannabis, and no bold new ini­tia­tives.

There are worst things to say about bud­gets than “bor­ing,” and this one earned that ep­i­thet.

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