Nova Scotia’s Liberal government is counting on cash from marijuana sales to help it deliver a third consecutive balanced budget, which includes modest spending increases for a heavily stressed health system.
Overall, the province is projecting a $29.4-million surplus on a $10.8-billion budget, as it continues to make progress on debt control.
A fair slice of the estimated surplus — roughly $20.8 million in fresh taxes and duties from projected sales of about 12 million grams of recreational cannabis — depends on Ottawa getting the legalized marijuana system underway across the country.
READ MORE: Nova Scotia’s 2018 budget by the numbers
Finance Minister Karen Casey said there are “still a lot of unknowns” in the cannabis sales, and cautioned “we are not looking to make money from cannabis sales.”
But she said years of fiscal restraint are starting to pay dividends, as the second-term Liberals are starting to sprinkle some spending into a health system plagued by doctor shortages and lineups of ambulances outside crowded ERs.
“It gives us the ability to make further investments in healthcare and education, while we continue to live within our means,” she said in her speech.
The biggest ticket items on her spending list are in healthcare, which is seeing an additional $103 million over the previous budget — though that’s a small hike in the context of a $4.4 billion health tab that currently eats up close to four of 10 dollars spent.
There will also be money for 350 more people to get hip and knee surgeries in the year ahead, at a cost of $8 million. It comes as national statistics have consistently shown the province having some of the longest wait times in the country.
Meanwhile, there is $2.9 million more to be spent on mental health services, targeted at areas of the province “without quick access to out-patient clinics.”
Advocacy groups have called for a major infusion of resources to the mental health system, saying the suicides of people with mental illnesses are directly linked to lack of quick access in crisis situations.
Education funding receives an overall increase of about $80 million over the previous budget.
That includes $15 million for inclusive education programs for children with special needs, and adds another $10 million to implement recommendations from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
“Improving this system will help students and ensure that teachers can focus on teaching,” said Casey during her speech.
Casey is also promising to release a plan for new school projects by June 1, based on a list created by school boards that are about to dissolved under new legislation.
The education measures have been promised by the Liberals as part of the benefits of restraints on wage and benefits for 9,600 unionized teachers.
As a human rights case launched by two people with intellectual disabilities continues, the Liberals have produced a pledge for $16.2 to help people move out of institutions, and $2.1 million to create eight small options homes, which could provide housing in the community for those people with some of the most complex needs.
Joey Delaney and Beth MacLean have recently argued before a human rights inquiry that the province has violated their rights by not providing them supported care in the community.
The province also unveiled its capital budget, large portions of which have already been announced, including $60 million for a total of $285 million for spending on highways, bridges and roads. The gravel road improvement program has been increased by $10 million to $20 million.
The budget projects a $15.1-billion debt, about $15,851 per resident of the province. However, that represents a steady decline in the debt relative to gross domestic product.
That’s down two percentage points from last year to 36 per cent of GDP, causing Casey to comment, “We are a stronger province and we are in a positive financial position.”