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Thursday 21 April 2011

NL Budget: A Rural Analysis, Part 2

Part 1 of the analysis addressed a few of the general aspects of the budget that might not be directly related to rural NL but are important in the bigger picture. Here in Part 2 we will dig into some of the issues that have been specifically discussed here at The Rural Lens and that are directly related to rural NL.

The first note here is the fact that Labrador is the only region of the province that gets a specific address in the NL budget. In the coming weeks there will be a blog entry on Labrador and why it deserves special attention, but for now I’ll just agree with the fact that it has it’s own section of the budget. There is significant spending allotted to Labrador with about $70 million for roadwork, $24 million for the Labrador West hospital, and $20 million for the coastal community energy subsidy program.

The budget has indicated $8 million to “…help address gaps in broadband availability in under-serviced areas and to further develop an advanced internal telecommunications network.” There is a tremendous gap in highspeed internet access in rural parts of NL as discussed briefly in this CBC story. There has been past investment in some areas under programs such as Smart Labrador but it is very unclear as to how much of this money will go to rural broadband. And in this story the Minister indicates they are still determining what areas might benefit from the funding. It’s about time we invest properly and get the infrastructure in place to serve the whole province with highspeed.

The two highest spending areas of this budget are education and healthcare (as they should be) but there is not a great deal of funding earmarked to deal with rural healthcare issues. There’s $700k allocated to improve accommodations for medical students in rural locations, and $1.2 million to continue the resident bursary program. Will this significantly improve things for people who can’t find a family doctor? The issue of Doctor shortages has been talked about across the country but with very little in the way of solutions. On this weeks election edition of White Coat Black Art on CBC Radio the Canadian Medical Association President Dr. Jeff Turnbull was one of the guests. He says that perhaps the problem isn’t not enough doctors but the way we deliver medical service. He suggests that if we had medical teams with a doctor, nurse practitioner, nurse and perhaps others working in partnership then we could provide better service at a lower cost then just hiring more doctors. Sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.

The total allocation for the agricultural sector identified in this budget is $750,000. $500,000 is earmarked for new equipment at the provinces Animal Health Laboratory, and the other $250,000 to assist new entrants into the sector. NL can be a difficult place to get some things to grow but yet we still have a reasonably strong agriculture industry, but $750,000 hardly seems appropriate to invest in one of the industries that helps to keep rural NL alive and has the ability to help us deal with our food security issues. For some perspective remember that this same budget has allocated $1.5 million to the Republic of Doyle TV show (a decision I support) but only half of that, $750,000, for an entire sector of our economy. Oh Yeah.

There is mention of approximately $10 million over three years, in investments into the provinces fishery in the NL budget. The majority, $6.6 million, is destined for new technologies while $3.1 million will support the Workforce Adjustment Program. So where is the investment to fishery restructuring? It’s only the backbone of the rural parts of NL, and the foundation of our settlement and culture. Not like it’s important or anything….

Municipal Sector
The two key areas in the municipal sector that are mentioned in the budget are infrastructure and Municipal Operating Grants or MOGs. On the infrastructure side the provincial contribution has increased from $135.5 million in 2010 to $140.8 million in 2011. Sounds like a good thing, yet somehow the total infrastructure spending will actually go down. Municipal infrastructure is cost shared between federal, provincial and municipal sources and this total investment number has dropped from $225 million in 2010 down to $219 million in 2011. Not great news.

On the other side are the MOGs. For years municipalities received significant operating funds from the province until they began to trail off and had not been increased for many years. Some have argued that for the small towns, operational funding is more valuable then infrastructure funding. The budget indicates an increase in MOG spending of $4.6 million and a reevaluation of the MOG formula. The news is welcomed but it’s not the move that is really required. This is like putting a band aid on a broken leg. We need a complete structural overhaul, but the apatite does not seem to exist to get it started. So we will continue to provide palliative care to a slowly dying patient.

The trendy thing is to provide a grade to the current budget, and as a teacher I just can’t help myself anyway. While there are some good spending initiatives, there really are huge gaps such as alternate energy production, fisheries restructuring, municipal restructuring, agriculture, and somehow we still don’t have a provincial land use plan. And to make matters worse we are not adequately paying down the provincial debt and in fact we are dipping into our $1.5 billion in savings by overspending by about $750,000 according to Allison Coffin, an economist at Memorial University as quoted in this CBC story.

From the rural NL perspective I have to say that the 2011 NL budget is worth the Grade of C. And that’s about it.

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