Health care dominated the Progressive Conservative election campaign last summer and so it should come as no surprise that it does the same with the party’s first budget since forming government in August.
But opposition leaders charge it doesn’t go far enough to help those most in need, and noted the decision not to increase income assistance rates at a time when the cost of living is rising.
Finance Minister Allan MacMaster tabled a document Tuesday with $12.7 billion in revenues and $13.2 billion in expenses, with a deficit of $506.2 million.
Spending on health care increased by $413.3 million from last year, including $20.6 million more on mental health and $142.5 million more for continuing care.
In his budget speech at Province House, MacMaster referred to the document as a “compassionate budget.”
“It is for all the people and their families who waited for a doctor, a surgery, a nursing home room, a place to live,” he said. “At its core, this budget is about solutions for the most basic needs we have today.”
MacMaster told reporters the government effort on health care is “transformational,” and that he hopes people begin to see noticeable differences in the system.
The Tories’ attempt to fix health care includes spending $3.2 million to create 200 new nursing school seats across the province, at Cape Breton University (28), Dalhousie University (26), St. Francis Xavier University (26) and 120 licensed practical nursing seats at Nova Scotia Community College.
There’s more money to expand virtual care to people without a doctor ($14.5 million), improve patient flow at hospitals ($10.2 million), perform 2,500 more surgeries through expanding operating room hours and opening up 28 new recovery beds in Dartmouth ($17.5 million), and hire 22 clinicians in the next two years for mental health and addictions outpatient clinics ($3.4 million).
The office of health care professional recruitment gets $9.8 million in the budget as the government attempts to attract and retain more doctors, nurses and other professionals. The office will have 33 people working in it. MacMaster told reporters it’s important to increase health-care services, but it’s just as key to have people to provide those services and for them not to be under constant strain at work.
The previously announced raise for continuing care assistants is included in this budget at a cost of $71 million. The province will also spend $17.2 million on additional recruitment for long-term care and $25.1 million to increase staffing levels to the point of being able to provide a new daily standard of 4.1 hours of one-on-one care per day for long-term care residents.
The change in care ratio is something the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union and long-term care advocates have called for for years. A government official said the change would require filling 549 new full-time equivalent positions.
As it works toward the building of new long-term care spaces, the government is also spending $11 million to convert or extend 190 existing beds for long-term care patients. This includes converting beds not normally used for long-term care or were previously only available to some military veterans, including 141 Veterans Affairs beds in the province, the majority of which — 67 — are at Camp Hill in Halifax.
The Tories are also making good on an election promise to offer support for people seeking fertility treatment or using a surrogate. The budget includes $3 million to introduce a fertility and surrogacy refundable tax rebate to help offset costs. The measure is worth 40 per cent of costs, up to $8,000.
The province is increasing the budget for the Newcomer Health Clinic by $684,000. There’s $675,000 more for the Nova Scotia Brotherhood Initiative, which provides culturally-appropriate health services for men of African descent, with plans to launch a Project Sisterhood. The budget also includes $150,000 to begin the process of collecting and analyzing race-based health data.
As the government works to confront the other major challenge it faces — housing availability and affordability — it plans to spend $15 million more on affordable housing programs. There is also $2 million to be used by the housing task force between the province and Halifax Regional Municipality.
The rent supplement program is being increased by $2.7 million. There is also $9.6 million for supportive housing initiatives and $7.1 million more for supporting people who are homeless.
A year after the single largest increase in income assistance ever, however, rates remain unchanged in this budget.
MacMaster defended the decision, noting a number of measures in the budget that will continue into the future focused on helping families with young children and seniors. He also pointed to last week’s announcement of one-time funding to assist people with the cost of heating their homes.
“These are real dollars in the pocket that we’re targeting help for people in need,” he said.
The government is increasing the child benefit by $12.5 million, which officials say breaks down $1,275 per child each year for families with an annual income below $26,000. For families with a household income of $26,000 to $34,000, the increase is to $1,275 for the first child and $637.50 for additional children.
The seniors care grant is budgeted at $29.1 million and will become a permanent program.
‘Status quo budget’
Opposition leaders were not impressed by the Tories’ health-care spending, and even less so by the lack of any increase in income assistance rates.
Liberal Leader Iain Rankin said it would be generous to call the document “a status quo budget,” and noted that the government increased health-care spending by less than he did a year ago when he was premier.
“We thought that they were going to start spending significantly higher than what the normal increases were and that’s why it’s pretty surprising to see a deficit that’s even smaller than the last budget,” he told reporters at Province House.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he was “scandalized” by the government’s decision to not raise income assistance rates at a time when inflation is at a decades high.
Burrill said the budget doesn’t come close to the promises the Tories made in the election campaign to boost support for mental health services. The government has said work continues on its promise to provide universal access to mental health care.
“You can pick this budget up by the heels and shake it upside down — you are not going to find that money,” Burrill told reporters. “It’s not there.”
Rankin, whose government increased income assistance rates by $100 a month last year, said he regretted not tying the increase to the rate of inflation.
Increase in disability support funding
There is a $54.2-million increase for programs supporting people with disabilities. The budget includes $3.5 million to help young people move out of long-term care settings and into community placements where they can live with people closer to their own age, and $8.8 million to remove the cap on the independent living support program.
On the education front, the government will spend $5.5 million to meet growth in the pre-primary program, $15 million to meet recommendations of the commission on inclusive education and $4.7 million for a new children’s sports and arts refundable tax credit worth $500.
The budget includes $113.2 million coming from Ottawa, which will be used to expand the recently announced affordable child-care program and fund the promised raise for early childhood educators. An Education Department official said the amount of the raise is still being negotiated and will come in the fall.
There is $12 million more for integrated health services for preschool children with autism spectrum disorders. The money is expected to speed up diagnostic assessments and expand a parent coaching program across the province.
Another campaign promise the Tories are keeping in this budget is the rebate all provincial income taxes on the first $50,000 paid by someone younger than 30 working in certain sectors.
The government said the measure will apply to people working in the skilled trades and sectors experiencing a skilled worker shortage, such as IT. It’s expected 25,000-30,000 people will be eligible for the measure to a maximum rebate of $4,500, depending on what other deductions they claim.
On the revenue side, the government is introducing a five per cent deed transfer tax when a non-resident purchases a residential property. It will be based on the value of the property.
The change won’t apply to purchases that happened before April 1 or to people planning to move here in the next six months.
Government officials expect the measure, which will apply to condos as well, to raise $15.5 million.
There will also be a new property tax of $2 per $100 of assessed value applied to buildings with three or fewer units owned by non-Nova Scotia residents. The measure doesn’t apply to buildings with more than three units rented to Nova Scotians. This is expected to raise $65.5 million.
Finance Department officials said 26,000-27,000 units are expected to be affected by the changes. MacMaster said the efforts are intended to raise revenue for the government while also acting as a kind of deterrent to non-residents buying up limited housing stock.
“It is incredibly difficult to find housing, whether it’s affordable housing or even attainable housing,” he said.
The province is also expecting more money from Ottawa on several fronts.
Equalization funding is up $143.4 million, the Canada health transfer is up $66.4 million and the Canada social transfer increases by $16.4 million.
Budget documents released Tuesday show the deficit could have been even higher, but recent funding announcements were applied to the 2021-22 year.
A total of $304.7 million in additional appropriations were made this month, including $105 million in one-time funding announced Monday for four rural universities.
The province also provided a final accounting for all COVID-related support spending in 2021-22, which came in at $598.4 million.
MacMaster said the plan remains to balance the budget in six years, as the Tories promised during the election campaign. He said he’s expecting government revenues to continue to increase as more people move to Nova Scotia.