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Budget focuses on health

Nova Scotia's Liberal government is expecting millions in added federal dollars will help it achieve a balanced budget while it commits money to rebuild aging hospitals and deal with rising pressures in health care.

The province is projecting a thin $33.6 million surplus in Tuesday's fiscal plan for 2019-20, on a budget of $11 billion. It's the province's fourth consecutive surplus budget, and there are no increases in taxes or fees.

Spending increases are sprinkled in small increments including more funding targeted at homecare, the introduction of tax credits to assist new firms, and new public awareness programs that will begin as the sales of edible marijuana products starts up.

However, the Liberals' biggest spending increase is in the health care sector.

The government confirmed $157 million in capital grants for "the largest health care redevelopment projects in Nova Scotia history," at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Centre in Halifax and the Cape Breton Regional Health Centre in Sydney.

In addition, the budget for the Nova Scotia Health Authority — the province's merged health agency — is up $57.2 million.

Finance Minister Karen Casey devoted close to a quarter of her speech to the province's health care system, which has come under continuing criticism for hospital crowding, doctor shortages and high numbers of pressure injuries among nursing home residents.

"When we looked at what the needs were and what the province could afford we were certainly identifying health as a priority," she told reporters just before speaking in the legislature.

Casey pointed out the province's health spending has grown by almost one fifth in five years to $4.6 billion, consuming a steadily rising percentage of the government's revenues.

However, the province's bottom line is assisted by federal contributions that are expected to go up by $178-million, with health transfer and equalization payments making up about one-third of all its revenues.

The transfers, equalization and money for mental health services from Ottawa's federal Liberal government are all rising, after negotiations earlier this year.

The province is also planning $16.8-million for home care, and another $10-million for collaborative care centres to help battle the persistent shortage of family doctors.

It is committing $14.2 million for housing for people with disabilities, with $6.6 million to help pay for care and support of people with complex needs.

A human rights case highlighted the housing shortages in a ruling earlier this year that concluded three people with disabilities had their rights violated by being confined for years in a psychiatric ward rather than in a small care home.

The province is bringing in some new measures aimed at encouraging investment in businesses.

The budget calls for $3 million to pay for a new venture capital tax credit aimed at encouraging equity investments in Nova Scotia companies.

In addition, it is setting up tax credits that are effective on April 1 that will give a tax break to start up firms that have existed for less than 10 years.

The net debt is estimated to be $15.3-billion, about $15,858 per person, but has fallen slightly as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Education funding is up by about $33 million.

That includes $10.2 of already announced money to continue rolling out a pre-primary program for four years at schools around the province.

"By September 2020, we anticipate that every four-year-old in Nova Scotia will have access to a free, pre-primary, early learning opportunity," said Casey.



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