Budget 2.0 – What about the economy?

On Tuesday, Deputy Premier and Finance and Treasury Board Minister Karen Casey presented the second version of the Stephen McNeil government’s 2017-2018 budget.

https://novascotia.ca/budget/

To the government’s credit, they generally stayed constant to the fiscal plan they presented in late April – a plan which earned a vote of confidence from enough Nova Scotians in the spring election to form a second consecutive majority government.

While there are many problems with how the government has achieved this goal, we should all put our political beliefs aside and acknowledge that running government in the black is a goal all parties should strive for.

I worked with John Hamm and his chief of staff Jamie Baillie when Nova Scotia started balancing seven straight balanced budgets. Contrary to what some say, fiscal responsibility doesn’t have to come at the expense of social progress. The governments of John Hamm and his successor Rodney MacDonald ran surpluses for seven straight years. These PC governments brought down Nova Scotia’s debt-to-GDP ratio from around 47 per cent in 2000 to around 34 per cent in 2009.

Progressive Conservatives during this period of time also modernized Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). They invested in infrastructure like the construction of Citadel High School and signed the deal with the previous federal Conservative government that resulted in the construction of the new Halifax Central Library.

Progressive Conservatives reduced university tuition for Nova Scotia students (the last time tuition fees went down in this province was under a PC government, contrasted with the tuition hikes delivered by the NDP and the Liberals since 2009).

Progressive Conservatives created the Nova Scotia School for Adult Learning in 2001, providing thousands of adult Nova Scotians with their high school diploma.

My family and I benefitted first hand from the Healthy Beginnings program launched under the Hamm government in 2002 (with funds courtesy of the Chrétien Liberal early childhood development initiatives of the day). Following the birth of our premature baby boy in 2011, my wife and I were scared and tired. We felt we weren’t ready as we brought a little baby home from the neonatal intensive care unit of the IWK. When the Healthy Beginnings public health nurse called us and came to visit us on the first day after our son came home, we were so relieved to have that professional support.

Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t find the right balance between
fiscal responsibility and social progress.

But a key ingredient to achieving both is economic growth.

Economic growth and the creation of new, good, well paying jobs help give governments the revenues they need to invest in programs for all of us that the private or not-for-profit sectors aren’t equipped to deliver.

The lack of a strong, growing economy is the biggest problem we must fix together as a province over the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, more than three years after the release of the Ivany Report, Now or Never, we see from the Budget 2017-2018 documents that most of the major economic trends aren’t good and aren’t moving in the right direction.

You won’t find any sense of urgency in this budget to delivering a climate for greater growth and job creation in Nova Scotia.

Yes, the government will point to our growth in population, immigration and household incomes as good news. And they are. But here’s what the government isn’t talking about.

Go to page 65 of the Budget Assumptions document, which describes the economic outlook for 2017 and 2018. Here’s a sneak peak of what you will see.

The last time Nova Scotia’s economic growth outperformed Canada’s on a multi-year basis was from 2007 to 2010. We have been lagging behind the rest of the country and are forecast to continue to do so.

Deaths continue to outnumber births in Nova Scotia. Current demographic forecasts in this budget predict that within the next 10 years, those aged 65 and over will be the second highest population group in the province.

How can we be sustainable as a province for our children and our grandchildren with fewer and fewer young people (those aged under 40) coming into our population?

The government is expecting our economic growth to drop by more than half, to just 0.5 per cent GDP growth in 2018. With Halifax taken out, this essentially means that the rest of the province continues to be in what’s defined as a recession, if not an outright depression.

Other conclusions from the McNeil government’s own budget documents:

• Nova Scotia’s labour force has dropped for the fourth straight year;
• Since the McNeil government took office in 2013, 4,000 fewer Nova Scotians are working today than four years ago;
• Nova Scotia businesses have been losing money for the past five years and are only now expected to return to profitability (although I wonder what impact the Trudeau government’s proposed small business tax changes will have on this).

I understand why there is so much focus on health care in debating this budget. It certainly was the issue voters raised most frequently with me.

But if we don’t find ways to accelerate growth, economic activity and job creation in this province, how do we expect to pay for the health care that we need? Even more importantly, how do we pass along a better province to future generations without a growing Nova Scotia?