Nova Scotia tables balanced budget, with $29.4M surplus relying heavily on cannabis sales

The Nova Scotia government is riding an anticipated wave of legal cannabis sales to its third straight balanced budget, with a projected surplus of $29.4 million that largely relies on taxes from recreational marijuana.

Health care, education and community services net largest amount of spending

Finance Minister Karen Casey heads to table the budget after briefing reporters at the Nova Scotia legislature in Halifax on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Premier Stephen McNeil's government is riding an anticipated wave of legal cannabis sales and a one-time payment from Ottawa to its third straight balanced budget.

The document tabled Tuesday by Finance Minister Karen Casey includes $10.81 billion in revenue, $10.78 billion in expenses and a projected surplus of $29.4 million.

A sizable portion of that surplus — $19.4 million — is related to taxes the government expects to receive from the sale of 12 million grams of recreational cannabis, if Ottawa were to get the legalized market up and running by July.

Casey told reporters there are "still a lot of unknowns" when it comes to cannabis sales, but the projections in the budget were based on the best available information.

Along with cannabis tax revenue, the budget also relies on money that Nova Scotia expects to receive from Ottawa for joining the new national securities regulator, projected to be a one-time payment of $77 million.

New spending in this budget includes $19.6 million to better recruit, retain and pay doctors under a multi-year plan, already announced by the premier on Monday. There's also $8 million to create more collaborative-care clinics, as well as $8.8 million to do 350 more hip and knee surgeries, hire surgeons and create a central booking process.

About 40 per cent of the 2018-2019 budget is earmarked for health care. (Robert Short/CBC)

There's an increase of $2.9 million for mental health care, an extra $1.2 million for take-home cancer therapy and an additional $5.5 million for home care.

The government will also spend $6.8 million in an effort to address the growing call volume faced by Emergency Health Services and its ground ambulances, as paramedic teams across the province continue to be tied up at hospitals waiting to offload patients.

Overall, spending by the Health Department is up about $100 million, representing the largest share of the province's expenses: $4.37 billion, or about 40 per cent of the total budget.

Not enough for opposition

Tory Leader Karla MacFarlane said she was particularly disappointed not to see more investment in mental health care.

"I'm so disappointed," she said. "We know that this province is in desperate need of psychiatrists — there's no real money there. There's no real plan there to increase mental health services and there are people struggling right across this province."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he's less interested in the government's surplus than he is the "surplus of people we have in hospitals in the province waiting to get into nursing homes."

Burrill said the problem of people tying up hospital beds while waiting for a long-term care placement is far too big for the government to ignore. He said the government's approach to providing some funding for a variety of services amounts to "salt and pepper with no meat, no potatoes and no vegetables."

Finance Minister Karen Casey makes her budget address as Premier Stephen McNeil, right, reads the document, at the Nova Scotia legislature on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

McNeil said the government's continued investments in home care have helped reduce the long-term care wait-list by 50 per cent. If new long-term care beds are required, the government would look at it and develop a plan, he said.

"We have continued to work with what has made a difference for Nova Scotians."

The premier disagreed with the criticism that the budget makes many minor investments for the province's neediest, rather than much larger spending.

"There will always be those who say we should do more," he said. "I believe we've struck the right balance in ensuring that we continue to support and help those Nova Scotians who require support and, at the same time, trying to drive an investment that creates opportunities for our sons and daughters." 

Funding for education, public housing

The budget makes good on McNeil's promise of funding to implement recommendations from the report on inclusive education, due out at the end of the month. There's $15 million earmarked and the premier has promised more if the budgeted amount isn't enough.

As previously announced, there's $17.6 million for 130 new pre-primary classes and $15.5 million for new child-care spaces. The Schools Plus program is being expanded into 54 more schools (at a cost of $1.6 million) and the Reading Recovery program will now reach 96 per cent of schools, thanks to an extra $3.3 million.

The Community Services Department sees a $16.2-million increase to the disability support program to help move more people out of institutions and improve respite care. Eight new small-options homes and two community-options homes will be created with the help of $2.1 million.

As previously announced, the budget includes $17.6 million for 130 new pre-primary classes and $15.5 million for new child-care spaces. (Robert Short/CBC)

The province will spend $12.4 million to improve public housing and $3 million to get 400 people off the wait-list for rent supplements.

As of August, the province will fully exempt child-support payments from a person's income-assistance calculation — a change that will cost $3.4 million. The province will spend $4 million as part of the Blueprint to End Poverty initiative, the first of a four-year, $20-million commitment.

The government will spend $2 million to prevent domestic violence and $710,000 to fund new programs and initiatives aimed at addressing systemic racism and discrimination.

There's a sprinkling of money for various economic development-related initiatives, however the majority of that spending was announced last week and is being applied to the current fiscal budget ending March 31.

That includes the $108-million trust for rural high-speed internet and $40 million in assistance to universities.

The windfall spending is the result of a favourable arbitration ruling the government received on offshore royalties. Casey said there could be more money to come, but for now they are only aware of the $240 million previously announced.

She said the budget and subsequent outlooks consider the province's share of the shutdown costs related to the Sable offshore project.

'Tiny sprinkles'

Despite the new money for universities, Aiden McNally, of the Canadian Federation of Students, said the budget does nothing to address the mounting costs and debt students face if they pursue university studies.

"Under the direction of this government we've seen some of the more regressive tuition fee policies across the country."

Christine Saulnier, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the budget only takes "a tiny step forward" to help the neediest people in the province. "It's tiny sprinkles that they were listening, but not enough to actually make significant difference."

The government also released Tuesday its capital plan for 2018-19, a document that is usually released in January. While it outlines plans to spend on gravel roads, highways and already announced school construction, it is perhaps most notable for what it does not include: the announcement of any new school construction.

Government officials say no new schools will be announced until June, at which a new process is expected to be released for how projects are selected. That decision follows calls from both the auditor general and education consultant Avis Glaze to overhaul the current approach, which has been criticized as being overly political.

About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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