Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative government passed its first budget Friday in a spring sitting marked by long hours, contentious new tax measures and more criticism about Premier Tim Houston's conduct in the legislature.
In total, 31 bills were passed — 17 of them on Friday — during a sitting that was often acrimonious and involved little cross-party co-operation. Even the bill that was touted as an all-party effort — the Act to Dismantle Racism and Hate — ended up being criticized by members of the opposition because of the government's unwillingness to adopt amendments to address concerns raised by several Black MLAs.
Other notable legislation passed by the government included a bill to allow for the continued growth of the solar industry, further attempts to protect the province from being sued for the early closure of Boat Harbour to pulp mill effluent, recognizing Mi'kmaw as Nova Scotia's first language, and beginning the process to allow restaurants to permanently be able to sell alcohol as part of takeout and delivery orders.
The government is also creating a mandatory registry for all short-term rentals in the province, although it remains to be seen how that information will be used and whether the effort helps address the sector's impact on housing stock.
New taxes draw criticism
Following more protests outside the home of Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang, the government expanded existing legislation to create bubble protection from protests for senior health-care officials and providers at their homes.
The Tories' first budget included initiatives such as tax credits for fertility treatments and surrogacy, money for more surgeries and other efforts to improve the health-care system, a tax credit for kids' activities and a tax break for people younger than 30 working in the trades.
An element of the budget that drew considerable public criticism during the committee on law amendments was a new deed transfer and property taxes to be levied against people who own property in Nova Scotia but are not full-time residents, something that was a part of the Tories' election campaign platform.
The government originally sold the measures as an effort to help the housing crisis; however, faced with vocal opposition from people who questioned how effective that would be, later presented it as a way to help fund the tax break for people in the trades or create revenue in the face of a $500-million deficit.
COVID a factor in and out of the House
The government was also criticized for not increasing income assistance rates in the budget, something advocates for vulnerable people said amounted to a cut in financial support for those who need it most. Finance Minister Allan MacMaster pointed to one-time assistance measures the government announced in the lead up to the budget and said more help could come, but there are no definitive plans at this time.
Debate at the House took place against the backdrop of a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the province, and hospitals overwhelmed by understaffing and high patient demand.
The pandemic also factored into operations at the legislature, with some House business delayed for two days following an outbreak among MLAs and staff. Multiple MLAs took advantage of the use of a hybrid model throughout the sitting as they came down with COVID-19.
After operations fully resumed with the hybrid model, the government started calling late hours at the legislature, moving things along as quickly as possible. It was something Houston, while in opposition, sharply criticized former premier Stephen McNeil for doing. Houston was less concerned about the approach earlier this week when reporters reminded him of his previous stance.
The premier's behaviour in the legislature was also the subject of debate in the final days of the spring sitting, with several MLAs criticizing the tone he was setting and his decorum. Several other MLAs apologized for their own conduct during long hours that seemed to put many members on edge.
As he did in the fall sitting when faced with similar criticisms, Houston pledged to do better.
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