Dennis King’s first budget as premier contained no dramatic departures from budgets from the previous Liberal government but included increases in spending on health care, education, infrastructure and housing.
The budget largely maintained a continuity with budgets delivered under the previous Liberal government of Wade MacLauchlan.
The budget contained almost $118 million in new spending, including $36.3 million in new expenditures in health-care services, $19.2 million in new spending for education and 11.3 million in new spending on social housing and poverty initiatives.
The budget projected a modest surplus of $1.8 million. Although last year’s Liberal budget projected a surplus of $1.5 million, the total surplus for 2018 ended up coming in at close to $14 million.
Last year’s Liberal budget contained $107 million in new spending initiatives, including a $32 million increase in health-care spending and a $17 million increase in education spending.
New health spending contained in the 2019 budget included a commitment to hire two additional family physicians in Queens County and one new orthopedic surgeon.
The new education spending included a commitment to hire 32 new teachers and 42 new educational assistants.
The increase in funding for the Department of Social Development and Housing included a $4.4-million commitment to fund the construction of affordable housing, as well as a commitment of $2.2 million for rent supplements for low-income Islanders.
In addition, the budget committed $100,000 in annual support to “a shelter for women in the province”.
Blooming House, a women’s shelter that opened in January, has previously not secured a long-term funding commitment from the province.
The budget also contained an increase of $87 million in expenditures for the department of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy. Most of these expenditures will be offset by a
whopping $88.6 million in additional infrastructure funding from the federal government, although some of this will be distributed to other departments.
In a speech delivered before the legislature, Finance Minister Darlene Compton complimented the financial prudence of the previous government.
“Our plan today is built on the good work of the previous government and some great ideas from all parties in this assembly,” Compton said.
In an interview with media, Compton suggested the budget was “historic” due to the consultation with the Opposition Greens and Liberals.
“None of us have gotten everything we wanted in the budget. That’s just the nature of the beast,” Compton said.
Specifically, Compton said the focus on housing, health care and education was expressed in the platforms of both the Liberal and Green platforms.
Compton also noted that several initiatives suggested by the Opposition Green party found their way into the budget. These included a $225,000 commitment to examine establishing a “secure income pilot”, the funding for a women’s shelter, an increase in midwifery services and investments in solar initiatives.
But Green finance critic Michele Beaton said these initiatives, which aadd up to less than $1 million, amounted to “low-hanging fruit” for the government. She characterized the budget as “warmed-up Liberal leftovers,” which largely included items already announced by the previous Liberal government.
Beaton also said the budget did not go far enough in addressing the shortage of affordable housing in the rental market.
“It's good to see that they focused in some key areas, but we have the most vulnerable that have not really been addressed,” Beaton said.
Heath MacDonald, who served as minister of finance under the previous government, did not dispute Beaton’s characterization.
“Some leftovers are better the second day anyway," MacDonald said.
MacDonald said he would have liked to see more investment in grants for post-secondary students. He also said he was concerned about the approach of phasing in tax cuts for small businesses and individuals.
The budget included a 0.5 per cent reduction in small business taxes, but King has suggested further tax cuts will be phased in over multiple years.
“Those are the types of things that can slow the growth of the province,” MacDonald said.
Penny Walsh-McGuire of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce echoed MacDonald’s comments about the pace of the business tax cuts.
"We were a bit disappointed by the 0.5 per cent reduction,” Walsh-McGuire said.
She said she was also hoping the King government would commit to increasing the Basic Personal Amount to $12,000. The budget included an increase of the Basic Personal Amount from $9,160 to $10,000.
NDP leader Joe Byrne said he believed the $4.4 million investment in housing construction was out of step with the current needs of Islanders.
"That might be a start, but it's not going to address the crisis," Byrne said.
"Our friends and neighbours that are struggling, I don't think they're going to find a lot of solace in this budget."