It was shiny, happy times at the legislature Thursday as newly minted Finance Minister Charlene Johnson released her first provincial budget.
Given last year’s slash and burn, Johnson could have tied the purse strings tight and still elicited a sigh of relief.
Instead, this is a budget for the people, with a steady stream of goodies for almost every sector of society.
In exchange, the province is projecting a $537-million deficit — less than her predecessor Jerome Kennedy predicted last year.
Johnson said the lower deficit is primarily a result of lower than expected spending, bringing the current year’s deficit to $348.7 million from the forecast at $450.6 million.
The province is also pumping a further
$552 million into Nalcor this year as an “equity investment.” The province already owns Nalcor, of course, but the funds are earmarked for Nalcor’s own energy investments as well as a downpayment on Muskrat Falls.
In most every aspect, Thursday’s budget was a kinder, gentler animal — a nod to everything from environmental protection to small business to education to arts and heritage funding.
There was the usual boasting about the state of the economy — better than ever in many respects — but the tone of Johnson’s speech quickly changed to one of compassion and outreach.
One of the biggest eye-openers was the decision to convert from student loans to grants. The switch — which comes into full effect in the fall of 2015 — won’t help graduates currently mired in debt, but will have a big impact on future students.
The province will also continue its freeze on tuition.
Starting in 2016, the province will finally introduce full-day kindergarten.
The idea has been on the radar for years, and is already offered in many other provinces.
As for social programs, the budget reached out extensively to low-income families, charitable groups and native people.
The province will continue its controversial fly-in, fly-out social worker program for Natuashish, but does plan to boost further funds and personnel in Innu regions.
Citizens on income support will see a raise of five per cent starting in July, and the threshhold for income tax exemption will also rise.
Not a very conservative budget by any standard. It’s the budget of a government way down in the polls and looking to get back into people’s good books.
As a result, it will appear to many as a reversion to the excessive spending of the oil-rich 2000s.
Johnson is predicting a surplus in each of the next two years.
With the growing debt load — helped along by expenditures on Muskrat Falls and a growing unfunded pension liability — that will be quite the feat.