Response to the 2019 Budget

Green Finance Critic Michele Beaton's response to the 2019 Budget is copied from the official Hansard transcript of her speech in the Legislature on June 25, 2019.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And I thank you, the Minister of Finance.

However, I’m not entirely sure if I should be addressing my thanks to the Minister of Finance or to the Member from Cornwall-Meadowbank, as it would seem that he is the mastermind behind this document.

I appreciate we are still in the early days of this new administration, but I still can’t help but feel disappointed to see that almost all of the budget is warmed-up, Liberal leftovers. 

 

Most of the so-called new spending has, in fact, come from program commitments made by the Liberals before they left government. For example, the Premier has made much about collaborating with the official opposition and the third party over budget priorities. For us, we have been very clear that our four biggest priorities are poverty elimination, housing, climate change and good governance. But almost all of the budget pledges in areas that are priorities of the official opposition are simply a fulfillment of commitments made by the previous administration and don’t represent an expansion or improvement to existing inherited plans. We are glad to see these commitments reaffirmed and, again, thank the former minister for having made them. But, we also know that major issues like poverty, climate change and housing will require substantially greater efforts, bold action and innovative solutions.

For example, the increase in social assistance rates in this budget is merely − to the 6% increases in food and shelter rates promised last year and in no way addresses the fact that more and more Islanders are being left behind.

Government is framing an increase in the basic personal tax exemption as a measure to support low-income Islanders when, in fact, middle class and wealthy taxpayers will benefit more by this change. This does nothing for the most vulnerable Islanders who are already not paying taxes. There are better ways to help Islanders in need.

There’s some confusion emerging around whether this government is actually moving ahead with the development of a basic income guarantee pilot, or something different that they call secure income. We very much hope that this government is serious about the basic income pilot program and we’ll be looking for an ambiguous commitment to the basic income guarantee.

It is as if this new government has inherited an old house, one we all know is in need of significant renovations, and they don’t quite know where to start work so they have decided to carry on with the plan of the previous owners and are conveniently ignoring the major structural repairs that need attention now.

Speaking of housing, this is another file where we wish government had gone further. The budget commits $4.4 million to build affordable housing supply. I can’t help but think that this is inadequate in the midst of a housing crisis. There’s no mention in this budget about addressing labour gaps in the skill trades – trades which are vital to the development of new housing. With an aging workforce and a demand for builds that’s higher than ever, we need to be growing and maintaining our capacity to deliver this demand.

Again, in the area of climate change, there is little to no new spending. The 30 megawatt wind farm was a commitment of the previous government. The Minister of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy has already told this House that he is tweaking the solar rebate program designed by the Liberals. But most disappointingly, there is nothing significant here to help accelerate the shift to cleaner energy. The half million dollars promised to support residential solar installations is completely inadequate. For example, there are no incentives for electric vehicles and no supports for businesses that want to install charging stations. While the commitment to develop a provincial one million tree program is a welcome step in increasing Prince Edward Island’s carbon sequestration capacity, the program, to a large extent, seems like a repackaging of existing reforestation programs, including the Greening Spaces Program, and the Carbon Capture Tree Planting Program. To more effectively combat climate change, the government should be investing in programs encouraging the conservation and cultivation of additional natural carbon sinks like wetlands.

We are pleased to see a cluster of our recommendations to support women have been picked up by the government. For example, the midwifery register and program will be a welcome addition to our health care system as well as some funding for women’s shelters, but we are also concerned that the funds allocated are minuscule in comparison to the need. In total, it only represents $350,000. A women’s shelter is not a new need, and will not go away. A commitment to longterm operational funding is essential, but missing in this budget.

We do support this government’s commitment to improving education, especially their commitment to adding 32 new teachers and 42 new educational assistants. We also appreciate that they have not cancelled the wage increase for early childhood educators that was promised by our previous government, but educators in this sector have been clear – much more funding is required if they are to reach wage parity with the educational assistants. We also need to see the full school food program. Students who are fed achieve better educational outcomes. Student success is not something we should be kicking down the road.

With respect to postsecondary education, it is disappointing to see the government’s lack of vision. While the increase to core operating funding is important and something I would encourage this government to continue, the devil is in the details. The fine print of the budget shows that total combined funding for Holland College and UPEI will decrease by $3 million. The people who are really hurt here are the students. While students can expect their tuition to increase, there is no announcement here about expanding student financial aid for Island students, despite a commitment in your platform to do so. There is no announcement to invest in free textbooks, again, promised in your platform. And, as I referenced earlier, it is unclear what your strategy is to expand and enhance education in high demand areas like construction.

The government has invested a 5.4% increase in health care services − $36 million. This sounds impressive, but is actually in line with increases made by the previous government. In 2018, the increase was $32.5 million or 4.8%, and in 2017, it was 5.8%. While the commitment to provide 100 new long-term care beds across the province is welcomed and needed, the budget does not address the significant increases in public long-term care fees introduced by the previous government. Increases that will make it hard for seniors to receive the care that they need. However, it is great to see that the province is investing in mental health; therapists, school nurses, school outreach workers, occupational therapists, and psychologists to support students and their families.

We are glad to see continued commitment to fiscal responsibility with this small surplus. Furthermore, the declining debt to GDP ratio indicates an improving fiscal situation in the near future. We feel it is critically important that this province is governed in such a way that our finances are sustainable in the long-term, and that future generations are left better off.

Last week, my colleague, Leader of the Opposition, responded to the Speech from the Throne and said, I quote: “I agree wholeheartedly with the government’s vision. I remain skeptical that there is a realistic plan to achieve that vision. In the coming weeks we will learn more about government’s true intentions when it brings forward its first budget. The budget will be the much greater test of confidence of this Legislature, as it will provide clear evidence of government’s priorities than the throne speech.” The speech is just words, very pretty words, but still, only words. The budget is action, the expenditure of public funds. We on the opposition benches will be looking clearly to make sure that the actions live up to the words in the throne speech."

As I stand here today, I am not entirely convinced that this governments action do live up to their words in the throne speech. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.