No consensus on provincial budget

HALIFAX: Nova Scotia’s main political parties have differing opinions on the provincial budget.

On March 26, Finance Minister Karen Casey tabled Budget 2019-2020, 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 called it “a very good budget.”

“What it reflects is the good fiscal management that this government has undertaken,” Hines told The Reporter. “I’m so proud to be a part of this. This is our fourth balanced budget. I think that’s sending a great message to Nova Scotians and to people on the outside that are observing Nova Scotia; a message that says we have our fiscal house in order and that we are a good place to invest.”

Looking within his own department, Hines said the government has increased the capital budget for roads to $300 million this year. 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.

“We just, as part of this budget, tabled the largest road capital budget in the last number of years, in the history of the province,” Hines noted. “It talks about paving, repaving, bridge repair, the kinds of things that provide safety and security for our communities right across the province, particularly in our rural communities.”

The Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal reported great progress on highway twinning, particularly Highway 104 to Cape Breton. With the help of the federal government, Hines expects the province will invest more than $800 million to twin highways in Nova Scotia.

“We’re at the leading edge of the twinning program that we have undertaken and are pursuing very, very diligently and with intent,” Hines said. “We’ve got the 104 out with the preferred candidates to submit proposals by September…”

Locally, Hines pointed out that the Gravel Road Program will see a budget increase to $20 million this year.

“This is for taking well-travelled gravel roads and re-establishing their sub-grade, providing good drainage, crowning, cross culverts, and then the gravel goes on top of that,” Hines explained.

In eastern Nova Scotia, Hines said there are many projects scheduled or already taking place, including work on the Lennox Passage Bridge in Richmond County and the Liscomb River Bridge in Guysborough County.

On the healthcare side of the budget, Hines pointed to expenditures like $10 million to develop collaborative healthcare teams, and for Dalhousie University, $2.9 million to open 15 residency spaces and another $1.1 million to open 10 family practice residency seats.

“I’m very happy with the increase in health spending, the $200 million range overall, that’s already the largest portion of our budget at $4.3 billion,” Hines explained. “These are long-term investments that will take a little while to grow and bear fruit but we’re positioning the province for the future.”

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.

“Our commitment is to rebuild, not only the structure of the system – which we did with the institution of Nova Scotia Health Authority – but also the bricks and mortar that are so badly needed across the province,” he stated.

Hines also highlighted his government’s nationally-recognized commitment to pre-primary education, which the budget increased by $10.2 million.

“To take our four-year-olds and give them a play-based, early education, I think is very commendable in terms of what we’re doing in education,” the minister said. “Our goal is that September 2020… every four-year-old in Nova Scotia will have access to free early learning. I think that’s going to be planting a seed that will have great return for us in the long haul.”

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.

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

“It hasn’t been easy, everybody’s had to make sacrifices but this has put us in a much stronger place as a province,” Hines noted.

Allan MacMaster

Inverness MLA and Progressive Conservative Finance Critic, Allan MacMaster had a different take on the budget.

“The question that has to be asked is the government getting the results we need in the way they’re spending in the provincial budget?” MacMaster asked.

In healthcare, MacMaster told The Reporter that it is not about how much, but how, the government is spending that money. MacMaster 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.

“A lot of people feel that our healthcare system is in crisis, at least for some people,” the Inverness MLA noted. “There’s a feeling, I think out there, that there’s a lot of problems with healthcare.

“While the government maintains that there is no crisis in healthcare, I think people out there, what they’re experiencing might be different.”

MacMaster took issue with the province chastising nursing homes for sending residents to emergency departments.

“If somebody has a fall at a nursing home, they don’t have the equipment, like an X-ray machine, at the nursing home to determine if a person has a broken bone,” MacMaster said. “If they don’t send them to the ER, where they have the equipment to do analysis – like an X-ray in that case or a specialist, perhaps the person may need to see a specialist – they’re sending people to the ER on purpose for a reason. And even their own medical licences require that they do so.”

Telling nurses not to take vacation time in the summer due to staffing shortages, is also not acceptable to MacMaster.

“This is a group of people who are already working under a lot of stress by the nature of their work, but they’re also experiencing shortages at work,” he said. “I know, especially at nursing homes, they’re experiencing that and now they’re being told, when they need maybe an outlet to have a day or two off, they’re being told that they’re not going to be allowed to do that.”

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.

Gary Burrill

For his part, NDP Leader Gary Burrill called the budget a “dumpster full of disappointments.”

“We have emergency rooms that are overcrowded, ambulances backed up outside hospitals, and not enough beds for patients who need them,” Burrill said on March 26. “In response to this crisis, all the McNeil Liberals have offered is a dumpster full of disappointments.

“It’s disappointing that there’s no province-wide action on long-term care facilities to relieve the pressure in emergency rooms. And it’s disappointing that the 27 members of the Liberal government think they know better than doctors, nurses, patient advocates, paramedics, and health care policy analysts across the province, about what is needed to address the health care crisis.”

For more information about the 2019-20 provincial budget, visit http://www.novascotia.ca/budget.