The decision by the province to scrap a program for post-secondary students and a lack of assistance for struggling municipalities will plague the Liberal government for at least the short-term, Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak says.
Finance Minister Diana Whalen presented a $9.9-billion budget Thursday. It includes an increase of $455 million in expenditures, most of which was already promised by the previous NDP government. The loss of the graduate retention rebate that gave grads a maximum annual tax credit of $2,500 to stay in Nova Scotia following school could prove problematic for the Liberals, Urbaniak said.
“The (budget) probably would have been a one- or two-day news story, and the province would have gone on to talk about other things, and other controversies, if it was not for this (issue),” he said.
Students Nova Scotia executive director Jonathan Williams said in a release it was a “betrayal of our students” to eliminate the rebate program without reinvesting the money in young people.
“We ’re shocked that this government is deciding to take funding away from students and graduates with this budget, just one month after the Ivany Commission report highlighted the importance of young people for our province’s future,” he said.
Getting rid of the tax credit is estimated to save the government $49.5 million.
No mention in the budget speech of municipalities burdened by the downloading of costs by the province is another weak point for Premier Stephen McNeil, Urbaniak said.
“I don’t think those two issues will just blow away.”
In the last month alone, the towns of Springhill and Bridgetown announced plans to dissolve due to ongoing fiscal pressures.
The province will reduce its share of gas tax revenue to municipalities by $2.7 million annually.
As a result of the Ivany report on the province’s economy, Whalen said a One Nova Scotia Coalition will be formed to examine the recommendations in the report.
In education, $7.2 million will be used to help cap Primary to Grade 2 class sizes at 20 students.
The Education Department said the money would be spent to hire 180 new teachers.
The cap on class sizes will be eventually expanded to include classes up to the Grade 6 level.
There will also be $3.5 million for the early literacy framework, and $2.4 million budgeted for the province’s math strategy to support educators with a focus on Grade 10 students.
With striking nurses heard chanting from outside the legislature, Whalen struck a dire tone in stating the Health Department budget has now surpassed $4 billion a year — 41 per cent of the government’s total budget.
“We’re at a crossroads in the health-care system,” she said, noting increased wages, benefits and how the system is used by Nova Scotians is driving up health care costs.
She said the government has set a goal of a six-month wait for knee and hip replacements. As well, a new dementia strategy will be implemented next year.
The province will also provide an extra $1.5 million to assist senior citizens living at home.
Through the Department of Community Services, the province’s nine Transition Houses, as well as family resource and women’s centres will receive an increase of $500,000.
The three-year sexual assault strategy will receive $2 million to promote change in that area.