The new provincial Liberal government budget is pretty lacklustre. We expected it to be much the same as the one tabled prior to the April election and, sure enough, it is almost identical.
Based on our work with alternative budgets, I have admittedly high expectations of what a government can do in its budget. But your bar doesn’t have to be too high to expect more than these highlights: a tiny investment in health care; hiring two guidance counsellors and one social worker in one school board to assist with youth mental health; and covering the over-spend of a development on the Halifax waterfront.
The government assured us that it heard Nova Scotians about their problems accessing health care. However, the new health funding amounts to little more than a rounding error (0.15 per cent of the health-care budget) — a total investment of just over $6 million, less than the $10-million election pricetag.
The message, again, is that things are steady. But are our expectations so low as to consider flatlined job growth, economic growth and productivity growth something to celebrate?
Nova Scotians have been doing more than their fair share to keep the economy going, but for how much longer can this continue? Budget documents show that between April and September, household income experienced slower than expected growth, resulting in a decline in personal income tax while HST revenue increased. This suggests that Nova Scotians are not only spending, they are likely going further into debt, which is both precarious and concerning.
Consumer spending is indeed an important economic engine, but it cannot be fueled by household debt.
This government has chosen to introduce a carbon price in the form of what is likely to be an ineffective cap-and-trade system. There is no vision to invest in a real way that would ensure a just transition to a green economy. This is another missed opportunity to ensure that Nova Scotians are prepared for the effects of climate change and can do our part to move towards a greener, more sustainable future.
The government champions its zero deficit and being on track to meet an arbitrary target of 30 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio by 2024. Debt-to-GDP is indeed a useful measure of fiscal health, but as long as the debt-to-GDP ratio is steady and not too high, we can manage it and afford to invest.
By no measure is our current debt-to-GDP ratio too high. If we don’t invest, people will continue to live in poverty, get sicker and have trouble accessing education and training — or leave the province altogether in search of better opportunities. Incidentally, this budget also makes no mention of the skyrocketing post-secondary education tuition fees and student debt load—a huge burden for so many young people.
The investment in a universal pre-primary care for four-year-olds is welcome, but we also need to invest in transitioning to a system of early learning and child care that meets the needs of today’s working families— all day, all year, no matter where they leave and no matter the age of their children.
The government says that it is transforming the income assistance program. This definitely is a laudable goal — if it means providing adequate income and supports to those Nova Scotians who are struggling the most. However, these are the very people who will continue to wait at least until 2019-20 before seeing any additional support. The decrease in the taxes payable that will remove $85 million (or more) from the tax system will not help them much, if at all, because their incomes are so low that they already pay little to no tax. Nova Scotians making less than $75,000 will see a decrease in their taxes payable of $263 at most, while the average Nova Scotian will see a decrease of $160.
This is a collectively expensive change, for very little individual payoff. We need to ask: given all the necessary investments we could be making in our collective well-being, is this tax cut really worth it?
Nova Scotians should expect our government to invest to improve our quality of life in a way that is evidence-based and represents the best use of resources. This includes investing to end poverty, to protect our environment, to strengthen public health care, to make public education inclusive, to support families with young children, as well as adequate core funding for museums, libraries and thousands of non-profits, all part of the essential fabric bringing together communities across this province.
In addition, instead of investing in its workers, our government is sending the message that they are undeserving of even a cost-of-living increase. As a result, the people who deliver our public services are feeling undervalued and under attack.
We can and should expect more.
Christine Saulnier is the Nova Scotia Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
This piece was published in The Chronicle Herald on September 27, 2017.