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VIBERT: Progress slow and steady in budget

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

If you take your progress slow and steady, Tuesday the Nova Scotia government produced another budget that should be to your liking.

On the other hand, Nova Scotians hoping for bold action to relieve overcrowded hospital emergency rooms or to help lift families and kids out of poverty, will have to settle for some halting steps in the right general direction.

The government has a plan and it’s sticking to it. It all starts with a balanced budget and that’s not negotiable. Tuesday’s was the McNeil government’s fourth successive balanced budget, and more are projected through 2022-23.

Any extra money that flows in is spread around fairly thinly, first to health, then education and on down the line to programs that support the poor and Nova Scotians with disabilities, with a bit here and there to try to give the economy a much-needed shot in the arm.

The government will tell you that the business community likes its balanced budgets because they create “the right conditions to encourage investment by the private sector and foster strong economic growth.”

Some economic indicators, like unemployment, which province-wide stands at about 6.4 per cent and has been on a downward trend for months, are encouraging. But overall, this budget projects economic growth in the province to be in the sluggish-to-moderate range over the next couple of years, growing by less than one per cent each year.

Perhaps a fifth straight balanced budget is needed to loosen up all that private investment and push Nova Scotia’s economy over one-per-cent growth and into the stratosphere other provinces take for granted.

On the spending side, the big-ticket item is the previously announced redevelopment of hospitals in the two largest regional municipalities, Halifax and Cape Breton.

This year the province is spending $157 million to advance these two projects, that Finance Minister Karen Casey said are part of the government’s legacy — “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve health-care infrastructure.”

While the province invests in new buildings, new spending on health programs is modest and directed largely at improving access to primary care, home care and mental health services, although without federal funding earmarked for mental health and home care, the budget would have come up light on both.

Access to primary care is an issue provincewide, with upwards of 100,000 Nova Scotians without a family doctor.

Doctors Nova Scotia said this budget is more likely to exacerbate the problem than relieve it because it does nothing to make Nova Scotia a more attractive place for physicians to practise.

Nova Scotian doctors pay the highest taxes in Canada and are paid among the lowest incomes in the country. The budget addresses neither issue.

There was no money or commitment anywhere in the budget to address the shortage of nursing home beds in Nova Scotia. That shortage contributes to bottlenecks throughout the system, because hospital beds are occupied by Nova Scotians waiting for a place in a nursing home. The McNeil government has yet to add a single new nursing home bed to the provincial inventory, after six years in office.

That situation is exacerbating the near-chaotic conditions in some of the province’s emergency departments. Patients admitted through emergency are often kept there for some time because inpatient beds — some blocked by those waiting to go to a nursing home — are not available.

The minister was unable to point to any initiative in the budget that will relieve pressure, at least in the short term, on emergency departments where ambulances and paramedics are regularly stacked up waiting to offload patients and therefore are out of service for emergency calls.

The most pleasant surprise in the budget was delivered by the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. The provincial portion of student loans is now 100 per cent forgivable, provided study takes place at a Nova Scotia institution and the student completes the degree in five or fewer years. Nova Scotians who leave the province for their post-secondary education won’t qualify, nor will they any longer be eligible for the grant portion of the Nova Scotia loan.

That measure creates a mighty incentive for Nova Scotians to stay at home for their university or college education and, since the province continues its parsimonious funding of universities — this year’s increase in $3.6 million — universities are going to need all the paying customers they can handle.

The big disappointment in the budget falls on Nova Scotians who suffer more than their fair share of disappointments — poor Nova Scotians. Those living on social assistance will see marginal increases in their housing allowance, but it’s not much. More will have to be said about that in coming dispatches.

Progress is slow in Nova Scotia. In many areas it is steady. But for the poorest Nova Scotians, it’s just slow.

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