Opposition parties critical of PC government's end-of-fiscal-year spending spree
The first full week in March has been an expensive one for Nova Scotia taxpayers who will be footing the bill for new PC government spending promises totalling $152 million.
Premier Tim Houston personally announced two of the biggest commitments — $58.9 to help Cape Breton University establish a medical school at Cape Breton University in Sydney and $37.4 million to set up a new Institute for Innovation in Health at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
Minister of Advanced Education Brian Wong announced the province would spend $25 million to develop health-care data analytics and management programs at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Universities weren't the only ones promised money this week.
The Westville Miners Sports Centre, which is in Houston's district, got $2 million for renovations and rink upgrades. Woodlot owners were promised $5.7 million to help them clean up damage from post-tropical storm Fiona and to manage their lands. Fruit growers will be getting $15 million in aid to help those who will suffer losses as a result of a cold snap last month. Transition homes, women's centres and associations have also been promised $8 million more in funding.
'Nova Scotians deserve better transparency'
The Finance Department has confirmed all of that spending will be accounted for in the current 2022-23 budget. Given Finance Minister Allan MacMaster is scheduled to table a new budget in two weeks, it's likely much, if not all, of this new spending will be added to the long list of additional appropriations. That's cabinet-approved spending over and above the budget approved by the legislature last spring.
That cabinet power has been criticized by Nova Scotia's Auditor General Kim Adair as lacking transparency and accountability.
"I think it's time," Adair told reporters when she released her report last December. "Nova Scotians deserve better transparency."
Adair's report revealed that during the past 10 years, successive provincial governments have used vague cabinet orders to approve $4.7 billion in over-budget spending.
In the last budget forecast update in December, Finance Department officials reported that cabinet had already approved nearly $1 billion in additional appropriations this year. A final figure will be available when the Houston government introduces its next budget March 23.
For the opposition leaders, all this extra spending rings alarm bells.
"We're certainly seeing March madness, when it comes to spending from this government and the worst part is that we're not seeing things get any better," said Liberal Leader Zach Churchill. "We're seeing a lot of spending and certainly in health care we're seeing the situation get worse."
"That tells you money isn't the fix to everything in health care."
Liberal track record
When they were in power, the Liberals also spent over and above what the budget allowed, including just over $1 billion in additional appropriations in during the 2020-21 budget year.
During the 2017 budget debate, before becoming PC leader, Tim Houston ridiculed the McNeil government for this kind of end-of-year spending spree.
"Now isn't it ironic, Mr. Speaker, without a March madness spending spree, without spending all this money — they probably wouldn't have even needed to go to Ottawa to get the money," Houston said, deriding the Liberals for not having the money to spend more on highway twinning.
During budget debate three years earlier he offered a similar negative view of additional appropriations.
"Mr. Speaker, this Liberal spending spree amounts to $400 million more even than departmental spending under the NDP," said Houston.
NDP Leader Claudia Chender was also critical of this year's extra spending.
"Tim Houston can spend all the money he wants but if it's not making a difference then at some point he's going to have to be responsible for the question of why?'" said Chender.
"We're about to go into a budget process where we're going to spend weeks and weeks and weeks talking about the government's budget, their priorities, whether it meets the moment and in the end they can do whatever they want and we have very little oversight."
"So the question is, is that spending working," she said. "And so far the people that I speak to say resoundingly, no."
Premier defends spending
Houston made no apologies for the money his government committed to health-related projects.
"I'll invest in health care today, I'll invest in health care tomorrow, I'll invest in health care every single day it matters," he told reporters after the St. FX announcement Thursday.
Houston said this week's announcements developed after asking department officials what potential projects universities in the province might be ready to move on.
"The investments in health care are long overdue," he said. " We're not waiting. We're not waiting for tomorrow, we're not waiting for next week."
"We are making those investments today and we'll book them accordingly. "
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