Nova Scotia announced no significant tax changes in its budget tabled Thursday, but will provide some tax relief to young nurses.
Nurses under the age of 30 will receive a refund of the provincial income tax paid on the first $50,000 of income. The program will open to applications in 2024 based on 2023 tax filings.
Repairing Nova Scotia’s faltering health-care system is the centrepiece of the provincial government’s $14.4-billion budget, with spending on health jumping 13% over the next year alone.
Premier Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government, elected in August 2021 on a health-centric platform, has been pushing a “faster access to health-care” mantra since voting day. And the title page of every budget document released Thursday included the word “FASTER” in huge type.
To deliver on that promise, the Tories’ second budget will again drop into deficit, this time by $278 million.
With health-related spending expected to increase by $750 million to $6.5 billion, that category now accounts for about 45% of total spending.
“The health-care system is something everyone benefits from, and no matter who you are in this province, you never know when you or a loved one are going to need that system,” Finance Minister Allan MacMaster told a news conference before he presented his budget in the legislature.
“We are laser-focused on fixing the health-care system and, there’s no question, it takes money to do it.”
Houston’s government announced 38 health-care initiatives, many of them aimed at reducing health-care wait-times and eliminating a chronic shortage of doctors.
Among the major items are $354 million for health-care worker retention programs, $147 million for health-related university initiatives and commitments to buy a fixed-wing air ambulance and provide the aforementioned income tax cut for young nurses.
Meanwhile, problems with health care continue to plague Houston’s government.
As of March 1, 137,587 Nova Scotians had registered themselves on a government wait-list for a family doctor. That’s 13.9% of the population. In August 2021, when the Conservatives were elected to govern, the list contained 71,666 names.
Last month, the family of a Nova Scotia woman who died in hospital on after a seven-hour wait to see a doctor filed a lawsuit against the province’s health authority. Allison Holthoff, 37, died on New Year’s Eve at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre in Amherst, N.S., due to complications from an untreated splenic aneurysm, according to the statement of claim.
A day before Holthoff’s death, 67-year-old Charlene Snow died at home after she gave up on seeing a doctor at a Cape Breton emergency room. She had waited about seven hours.
In response, Houston has been on a health-care spending spree in recent weeks.
He committed $59 million to set up a medical school at Cape Breton University; $37 million on a health institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.; and $25 million on developing health-care analytics programs at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
That money came from last-minute “additional appropriations” that were not set aside in last year’s budget. In the past two years alone, the province’s health budget has ballooned by 22%.
The budget documents indicate the government plans to continue racking up budget deficits for the next three years and, as a result, Nova Scotia’s net debt could rise to more than $23 billion, or about 36% of its gross domestic product — four percentage points higher than the 2023 forecast.
Though the province is again resorting to deficit financing this fiscal year, Houston’s government will benefit from the province’s rapidly growing workforce and the economic rebound experienced as the Covid-19 pandemic subsided.
By July of this year, the province’s population is expected to reach 1.04 million, a 2% jump that marks a big increase for a province that for decades knew nothing but out-migration. The growth rate in the past year was the fastest recorded since 1926, when population tracking started.
Meanwhile, employment levels are at a record high, and the province’s real GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced — grew by remarkably healthy 2.9% in 2022, though the rate is expected to decline this year.
“Nova Scotia’s economy proved more resilient and recharged more quickly through the pandemic,” MacMaster said in his budget speech.
But with inflation hovering at about 7.5% in 2022 and rapid population growth causing a severe housing shortage, low-income residents have been struggling.
As a result, the province plans to spend $36 million more on community services. A government spokesperson said some of that money will go toward supportive housing and increasing the child benefit paid to low-income families.
The budget will not, however, increase provincial income assistance rates — something that local food banks and community groups have been calling for to cope with the rising cost of living and increased homelessness.
In January, Nick Jennery, executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, said income assistance rates were “grossly” below the poverty line.
MacMaster said there are other ways of helping those most in need. “The federal finance minister and the governor of the Bank of Canada (say) targeted supports … are an effective way to help people when there’s inflation,” he told the news conference. As examples, he cited rent supplements, a new seniors care grant and a heating assistance rebate that rose to $1,000.