Last week the government tabled its budget. Next week, I will have the chance to ask questions about the details, department by department at the Estimates and Fiscal Policy Committee. However, comparing this budget with last year’s, many of the choices made by the Premier and cabinet are clear.
We heard in the budget speech that funding to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development will increase. School districts will see an extra $50 million. This is positive news for our public education system.
Child and youth teams will be provided to schools in more regions to address mental illness, behavioural problems, and addictions as they first develop in youth. This is a tremendous program that is making a real difference in young people’s lives.
At the same time, the budget fails to reflect the commitment to expand energy efficiency and clean energy programs to cut both our energy costs and our carbon footprint. The Climate Change Secretariat’s budget, which is supposed to quarterback these efforts, has barely budged.
Government has budgeted $20.3 million to cut its own energy costs, which is commendable, but the budget includes no new financing or incentive programs to help low income families, middle-class homeowners, or businesses to cut their heating costs.
I am particularly disappointed that no additional money is allocated for the Low Income Energy Efficiency Program, despite its success and 18-month waiting list. This program is helping families and seniors living on low incomes, to cut their heating costs by as much as 25%. That’s enough to relieve pressure on meagre finances and leave a little extra money to spend on food, transportation, and on family members. The government’s low carbon transition strategy explicitly commits to expanding capacity and programs to support low-income New Brunswickers in cutting their energy costs. They have done neither.
Seniors do not figure prominently in the budget, despite the recommendations of the Council on Aging to address the growing dementia crisis, and to support municipalities in making their infrastructure and services more age-friendly. The commitment to provide a tax credit for families caring for senior family members is noticeably absent.
There are a 100,000 New Brunswickers living in poverty, but income assistance rates remain frozen. The Department of Social Development says that 80% of those on income assistance are not able to work. Almost half will never be able to work, while nearly as many are not employable without heroic efforts. Why does government after government punish the most vulnerable with an income that is impossible to live on? Income assistance should meet people’s basic needs. A deliberate decision should have been taken achieve this by increasing income assistance rates.
The budget reflects the decision to hand-over management of food, cleaning and orderly services in our hospitals to a multi-national corporation. This means 280 people will lose their jobs and our capacity to manage these services by ourselves will be wiped out. Decisions about how to clean our hospitals and what food is fed to our family members will become the prerogative of corporate managers who are accountable to private shareholders, not to New Brunswickers.
Investment in tourism will increase, which is a very positive step. There is a big potential for strengthening local economies in every corner of the province through increased tourism. However, there isn’t much other support for the economies of our struggling rural communities and small towns.
Once again, government has frozen the overall budget for our Legislative Officers such as the Auditor General – despite inadequate budgets, despite added responsibilities for some, despite growing requests from the public, and despite proposals by the Legislative Officers for improvements to their budgets.
Legislative officers advocate for children, youth and seniors, for a citizen’s right to information, for a citizen’s right to be dealt with fairly by government, for a citizen’s right to be served by government institutions in either official language, for a citizen’s right to know that public funds are being spent effectively and efficiently, and for a citizens’ right to know who is lobbying their elected representatives. They need sufficient money to do the work New Brunswickers expect of them.
A budget represents an annual opportunity to make deliberate spending decisions to solve problems. While positive action is being taken to address challenges in our education system and with youth mental health, much of the budget reflects the status quo. This means government will continue to manage too many issues, rather than solving them.
David Coon is the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton-South.