New Brunswick is spending less money than any other province on COVID-19 measures while leaving millions of federal dollars on the table, according to a new report by a national think tank.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says the Higgs government is the stingiest administration in the land, spending just $7,500 per person on COVID-19 programs. Nova Scotia is the next lowest at $8,500 per person.
At the same time, the province has not spent millions of dollars it could have claimed from Ottawa, including $5.9 million available for health care, personal protective equipment, testing and long-term care.
The report says massive spending is needed to get Canadians through the pandemic, and no province should be turning down money in the name of fiscal prudence.
"The federal government needs to continue to lead the way and provincial governments need to do their part," the report says, "starting by investing any unspent COVID-19 federal funds that they've been sitting on."
Other amounts unclaimed by New Brunswick, according to the report, are:
$30 million to top up the wages of essential workers.
$19.7 million for long-term care.
$9.6 million for a "rapid housing initiative."
The report says 99 per cent of all direct COVID-19 spending in New Brunswick has been federal money.
"The province provided its 25 per cent for the essential worker wage top-up and provided its own emergency workers' benefit, but little beyond those programs for individuals," it says.
The report's findings echo criticisms of the Progressive Conservative government by the Opposition Liberals.
"Now it's documented, it's researched and it's real," says Liberal Leader Roger Melanson, calling the Higgs government's approach "the cheapest effort I've seen in the country."
Secured or negotiating 'every available federal dollar'
In a lengthy statement, government spokesperson John McNeil said the province "has secured or is currently negotiating every available federal dollar" for its COVID-19 response.
The Department of Social Development, which oversees long-term care, has secured "every available federal dollar" for programs, including infection prevention, "workforce stability plans" for care workers and the creation of isolation wings in nursing homes.
And the Department of Health "is currently forecasting that all the health-related funding will be required," McNeil said.
In those departments, "full accounting of the details of these expenditures will only be known at the end of the fiscal year as the situation changes regularly based on the progress of the pandemic," the statement said.
While the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says its report was up to date as of Dec. 31, McNeil says it's based on figures from last September and some federal-provincial spending agreements are still being worked on.
In November, Premier Blaine Higgs told the legislature that the province was getting $218 million from Ottawa for COVID programs and that it had spent $167 million until that point.
"We will be spending in the particular categories beyond what they've currently allotted," he said during question period. "But who knows by how much at this stage, because we do not know how long this is going to last."
The report's author says Higgs may have been looking at particular funding programs, while he examined all programs.
"It may be well be that they exceed in some areas and underspend in some areas," says David Macdonald, the think tank's chief economist.
This government is trying to spend the bare minimum on addressing COVID and is leaving the vast majority of expenditures to the federal government. - David Coon, Green Party leader
"Certainly the province should be accessing all the federal money that's on the table. It's certainly in their interest. It doesn't make a lot of sense to leave money on the table when the feds are giving it to you, in essence.
"All you have to do is show the plans that you want to improve long-term care, you want to improve affordable housing, you want to improve wages for low-wage essential. These aren't, I don't think, controversial issues."
Green Party Leader David Coon says it's impossible, when the legislature isn't sitting, to reconcile Higgs's claim in November with the report.
"It's still a big black box without us being able to dig into this at the legislative assembly and get the numbers out," he says.
"This government is trying to spend the bare minimum on addressing COVID and is leaving the vast majority of expenditures to the federal government."
Higgs also pushed back in November on Liberal calls to spend more by pointing to the province's relatively low COVID-19 case rates and its improving economic indicators.
But other Atlantic provinces that have similarly good case numbers are spending more. Compared to New Brunswick's $7,500 per person, Nova Scotia is spending $8,500, Prince Edward Island is spending $8,600 and Newfoundland and Labrador is spending $9,180.
Melanson says he believes Higgs is leaving some federal money on the table because the programs would require matching provincial dollars the premier doesn't want to spend.
Last week, Higgs announced new $5,000 grants for businesses affected for at least a week by red and orange-phase restrictions between early October and the end of March. Those grants are not accounted for in the report.
"This program is funded entirely by the provincial government," McNeil said.
In December, after months of sparring with the federal government and opposition parties over unclaimed infrastructure dollars intended to help the pandemic-hampered economy, the province began approving projects in its capital budget.
Those projects, including the refurbishment of a 19th-century Fredericton building that houses legislature offices and the legislative press gallery, are 80 per cent funded by Ottawa under a "resilience" stream of the Canadian Infrastructure Fund.
Both of those recent spending initiatives are too recent to have been included in the numbers Macdonald used.
Wage support also weakest
According to Macdonald's report, New Brunswick has also spent the least of any province on direct COVID-19 programs for individuals, such as wage subsidies.
Last spring the province created the short-term New Brunswick Workers Emergency Income Benefit, which lasted until Ottawa created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
New Brunswick has spent $3,300 per person on programs for individuals compared to $3,700 spent by Nova Scotia, $3,600 by Prince Edward Island and $3,800 by Newfoundland and Labrador. Alberta spent the most at $5,500 per person.