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A new report says the federal government is doing the heavy lifting when it comes to COVID-19-related spending in P.E.I.
The report also says the P.E.I. government has left millions of dollars in federal transfers earmarked for COVID-19 related programs unspent.
The report, Picking up the Tab, was written by David Macdonald of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The think-tank is known for having a left-leaning analysis.
Macdonald’s report tracks COVID-19 emergency spending by provincial and federal governments. It found that, nationally, 92 per cent, or $343 billion, of COVID-19 spending initiatives originated with the federal government. In P.E.I., 95 per cent of all COVID-19 spending was due to the federal government.
The biggest areas of spending from the federal government were with business supports, such as the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy, and through emergency income relief programs, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
The report said the province left a total of at least $9.2 million in federal funding allocated for COVID-19 programs unspent. These funds were earmarked for programs in health care, long-term care, affordable housing and training for early childhood educators.
The Guardian reached out to the provincial government, and a representative of the Department of Finance said a response would be forthcoming. However, it had not arrived in time to meet The Guardian’s Tuesday deadline.
Macdonald’s report says $4.3 million in health-care funding, transferred to the P.E.I. government under the federal safe restart agreement, has not been spent. The agreement allocated funds for testing and tracing, health-care capacity, personal protective equipment and long-term care.
"The safe restart fund was a straight transfer. So, they got the money. They sent the cheque," Macdonald told The Guardian in an interview.
An additional $1.1 million sum, earmarked for long-term care expenses for which P.E.I. would have been eligible, has not been spent. Macdonald said the P.E.I. government submitted plans for almost $3 million through the safe long-term care fund but was eligible for $1.1 million more. Another $1.8 million allocation earmarked for early childhood educator training has also been unspent in P.E.I.
Finally, an estimated $2 million allocation for affordable housing under the rapid housing initiative, aimed at allowing provinces to retrofit or quickly convert hotels and non-residential buildings to affordable housing, has not yet been received. The program allowed provinces to apply for an amount above a per capita basis, but Macdonald said he estimated P.E.I.’s allocation based on population. A deadline for applying for this funding passed on Dec. 31, 2020.
"They didn't have plans in place," Macdonald said.
A representative from the Department of Finance told The Guardian that Macdonald’s claim about the initiative was incorrect. The representative said an application has been submitted under the rapid housing initiative and was done before Dec. 31. The representative did not provide specifics on how much funding has been requested.
Other federal funds in the areas of childcare, education, job training and wage top-ups for essential workers have been fully spent by the P.E.I. government, according to the report. Amounts for these areas are not specified.
Liberal MLA Heath MacDonald, who served as finance minister in the previous government, said he was puzzled by the report.
“There's something definitely wrong here,” Heath MacDonald said. “We have an aging demographic. We have issues with long-term care and mental health and addictions, housing. And you're leaving money on the table in Ottawa."
Heath MacDonald added he felt P.E.I. has been very fortunate with the level of investment from the federal government.
The Green Opposition took issue with the focus on spending on shovel-ready paving infrastructure projects during the fall legislature session. Green MLAs criticized provincial allocations on housing, education and mental health capital initiatives that remained unspent from the previous year’s budget.
Green finance critic Michele Beaton said the unspent federal funds indicate that health, housing and other social initiatives have not been adequately prioritized.
"Spending choices reveal government's priorities. This lack of spending in the critical areas – we have housing and mental health and different areas like that – it's a choice of Premier King," Beaton said.
Stu Neatby is The Guardian's political reporter.