In the days before Budget 2018, the public was already being primed for a “stay the course” kind of document. Nothing jarring, no big cuts or tax hikes, nothing to see here, folks.
Well, it’s certainly a stay the course budget if you mean certain major projects won’t be much further ahead in 2018 than they were after Budget 2017.
A highly anticipated announcement for a replacement for the Waterford Hospital turned into a commitment of $6.1 million for what’s being called a “value-for-money” assessment and a “service redesign.” Patients and staff will likely be staring out those vintage 1855 windows for some time to come. It’s worth noting the Tories first announced the hospital was being replaced in Budget 2011.
Ditto any expectation of a replacement for the equally aged Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. Instead, $300,000 has been set aside for advanced planning construction and design work that will - eventually, at some unnamed point in the future - be manifested as a modern prison that will allow inmates to become more productive members of society.
There’s $8 million towards the construction of the “new” west coast regional hospital - a facility that’s been in the works for more than a decade.
A 2007 story from The Western Star said of the current facility, “A sign on the building warns the public to beware of falling debris.”
At least there is tangible progress being made there, though it’s not expected to be finished till 2023.
There is $723.9 million budgeted for Nalcor “equity investments,” as well as $33.7 million for the Muskrat Falls inquiry - an expensive exercise to be sure, but necessary spending to probe a megaproject that will keep on sucking up taxpayers’ money for years to come.
In fairness to the government, there were bright spots - more money for community based health care, a serious incident response team, roads and tourism, capital works and immigration, court upgrades and a drug treatment court.
All in all, it’s a maintenance budget of sorts - keeping things going and not making any sudden or drastic moves that would send the fragile provincial economy into a tailspin. Government has limited funds and seems to be sparing them along as best they can without the major disruptions of huge tax hikes or massive job layoffs.
But even though the government seems to slowly be getting the message that we can’t count on oil money to keep the economy lubricated, we are still highly reliant on a volatile commodity.
Not only that, the burden of the province’s long-term debt is a very real problem that no one should underestimate, or ignore. It’s an iceberg lurking mostly beneath the surface but it’s one upon which the province could run aground all too easily should we take another serious financial hit.
It’s time for serious conversations about what we can honestly afford and what we simply cannot any longer.