Boring budget a little thin in key areas
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because there is no additional cost to the province for a new bed in a modern facility when it replaces a bed in an outdated building.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.