Liberals go from belt-tighteners to spenders

After six years in government, the McNeil Liberals are transforming from the spend-thrift deficit hawks who first took office.

On March 26, Finance Minister Karen Casey tabled Budget 2019-2020, the government’s fourth consecutive balanced budget, which estimates a surplus of $33.6 million, with revenue of $11.01 billion and expenses of $10.98 billion. It also projects balanced budgets in each of the following three years.

Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie MLA and transportation minister Lloyd Hines said the budget reflects the “the good fiscal management” of his government that sends a message that Nova Scotia is a good place to invest.

Although he acknowledged “there is never enough money for roads,” Hines is confident in the investments his government has made and will continue to make, including the largest road capital budget in the history of the province which involves paving, repaving and bridge repairs – like the Lennox Passage Bridge in Richmond County and the Liscomb River Bridge in Guysborough County.

Along with the encouraging progress on twinning Highway 104 to Antigonish, Hines pointed out that the Gravel Road Program will see a budget increase to $20 million this year to re-establish the sub-grade of well-travelled gravel roads by conducting crowning, installing cross culverts, providing good drainage, then supplying new layers of gravel.

On the health care side of the budget, Hines pointed out that expenditures to develop collaborative health care teams, and for Dalhousie University to open more residency and family practice spaces, can alleviate some of the stresses in the system.

More than just handing out money, Hines said strategic investments – like the $100 million expansion of cancer care, critical care and emergency services at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, as well as other healthcare projects – will make the system stronger over the long haul. Hines noted the province is also looking at more “bricks and mortar” projects across the province.

Hines also highlighted his government’s nationally-recognized commitment to pre-primary education with an ambitious goal to provide every four-year-old in Nova Scotia access to free early learning by September 2020.

Staying on the education file, Hines pointed out that his government will be renovating École acadienne de Pomquet and is adding 11 mental health and addictions staff to support the Adolescent Outreach Program at 41 schools.

Other budget measures – like funding for the Vineyards and Wineries Investment Program, which can help operations in Inverness and Guysborough counties, as well as $16 million for frost relief for farmers – will also help the region, according to Hines.

Acknowledging that the work to get Nova Scotia’s books balanced required some pain, Hines said the province is in a better position than when the Liberals took power.

Inverness MLA and Progressive Conservative Finance Critic, Allan MacMaster had a different take on the budget, questioning whether this spending is translating into results.

In health care, MacMaster said it is not about how much the government is spending, but how it is spending that money. He pointed to wait times to get into nursing homes, patients admitted to the emergency department instead of acute care beds, and emergency patients waiting in ambulances, while ambulances are unavailable as a result of this backlog – as examples of shortcomings.

Citing what he called a “crisis” in health care, MacMaster also took issue with the province chastising nursing homes for sending residents to emergency departments and telling nurses not to take vacation time in the summer due to staffing shortages.

The PC Finance Critic pointed out that the money being spent on the Yarmouth to Main ferry could be put to better use helping the tourism industry across Nova Scotia.

MacMaster did like some parts of the budget, particularly funding increases for mental health. He pointed out that the Progressive Conservatives support a separate government department overseeing mental health.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill was less charitable, calling the budget a “dumpster full of disappointments.”

Burrill said it is disappointing there is no action plan for long-term care facilities considering the over-crowded emergency rooms, ambulances backed-up outside hospitals, and not enough beds for patients.

It is tempting to believe that the provincial government has completely transformed into free-spending Liberals, like their federal counterparts, but that isn’t accurate.

While the federal Liberals promised to run deficits so they could make tangible investments to stimulate economic growth, in Nova Scotia, the Liberals promised fiscal restraint to get the province back on track. With the budget balanced, the McNeil government is now making strategic investments in important sectors.

But as Hines admitted, the road to fiscal prudence was not a smooth one – with funding cuts, job losses, and service reductions – many in the Strait area alone. And, there were labour disputes along the way, including a very acrimonious debate with teachers, a major tussle with nursing home and homecare workers, and now a looming problem with paramedics.

Then there are the very real problems in health care. Opponents of the government would argue that health care funding should have been increased in these six years of restraint, to help a system under stress.

Some would question whether this belt-tightening was even necessary in the first place, whether it was actually damaging to the economy and whether the province should have followed Ottawa’s lead and spent to stimulate the economy.

That is a moot point after all these years of cutting the fat. The reality is that the Liberals promised to cut the purse strings, did so, and are now in a position to spend more money.

It remains to be seen whether this is a case of too little money, arriving too late.