INVESTING IN PEOPLE
Mr. Speaker, in this budget, we are moving forward on our record of investing in people. Our priorities remain health, education and helping those who are most in need. Among our priorities, we are sharpening our focus on youth, the future of our province.
Investing in Our Youth
At the public consultations for the Renewal Strategy for Jobs and Growth, the critical importance of education and the development of our youth, our most important resource, was repeatedly emphasized as a key ingredient for our long term economic success. We heard that youth need to be given an active role in determining the directions we take and that we have to focus more effectively on the challenges confronting our youth in the new economy.
Enacting the recommendations of the Ministerial Panel on Educational Delivery in the Classroom was highlighted as an opportunity to achieve excellence in the K to 12 school system. Government is taking a number of steps to address specific issues.
Establishing a New Department
A new Department of Youth Services and Post Secondary Education has already been established to develop the potential of the provinceís youth and integrate their views into our economic and social agendas. A new Provincial Youth Advisory Committee will provide the minister and government with input on youth issues.
Refocusing the Department of Education
The Department of Education has a new focus. This will bring about an intensified concentration on the K to 12 system and literacy. The department will also extend its mandate to include responsibility for early childhood education.
Investing in the K to 12 System
Mr. Speaker, there is no better investment we can make for our future than in the education of the provinceís youth. We are committed to ensuring that all the youth of the province have access to a quality education. In this budget, we are providing significant funding, including new initiatives, to ensure that access to quality education is available to all students, regardless of where they live in the province.
The increase in per student spending is the result of a number of initiatives undertaken by this government. We have allowed school boards to retain savings from school reorganizations and declining enrolments that normally would have reverted to government. We have maintained teaching positions that otherwise would have been lost because of declining enrolments. And, we continue to act on recommendations of the Ministerial Panel. We also have funded the most significant program of school construction and renovation in our history.
Spending More Per Pupil
Mr. Speaker, with this budget, our expenditure per student continues to grow. When we look at the new school year to commence in September, school enrolment will have declined by 14,500 students over the last four years, or by 14.8 percent. Yet, over the same period, government is spending more per student. Even when our substantial capital investments in school facilities is excluded, our spending per student will have grown from $5,557 to $6,434.
Maintaining School Board Grants
Educational reform has resulted in school reorganizations and some closures that have made our education system more efficient. We implemented a policy enabling school boards to retain the savings from school closures. Rather than have these savings revert to government, school boards have been able to keep them for a period of three years for reinvestment in our schools. In total, $23.4 million has been reinvested as a result of this policy.
The three year commitment allowing school boards to retain savings was due to expire in 1999-2000. In each of the past two years, and again for the upcoming year, government has allowed savings from school closures to remain with the boards. For the coming year, $5.6 million will be maintained in school board operating grants as a result of this initiative.
We also are providing extra funding to cover the unanticipated rise in utility costs for school buildings. A one time allocation of $3.5 million is being made to pay the additional utility costs incurred over the past two years. As well, on an ongoing basis, we will be funding the actual costs of utilities and fuel, protecting school boards from unpredictable price fluctuations.
No Teacher Lay-Offs
Mr. Speaker, despite declining enrolment, we have been reinvesting to retain most of the teaching positions that would otherwise come out of the system.
For the coming year, however, this government will not lay-off any teachers, even though enrolment will decline by approximately 3,500 students.
Mr. Speaker, this will be the first time in our history of declining enrolment when there will be no teacher lay-offs.
Implementation of the new allocation method in the Ministerial Panel Report on Education Reform would have resulted in the loss of 218 teaching units. We have decided to reinvest $11 million into the education system to retain these 218 teaching units. This reinvestment will allow school boards to improve programming and reduce class size.
Maintaining the Best Teacher-Pupil Ratio
Over the past twelve years, our teacher-pupil ratio has improved significantly and is now the best in the country. In the new school year, as a result of this budget, it will improve again. We will have one teacher for every 13.3 students. This budget ensures we will continue to lead the country by our investment in teaching resources.
Addressing Recruitment Concerns
This year proved to be a difficult one for school boards to recruit and retain sufficient teachers for coastal Labrador. We have provided $800,000 to fund a recruitment and retention bonus for all teachers who work in isolated coastal communities in Labrador.
Implementing the Ministerial Panel Report
Mr. Speaker, a number of new initiatives, totaling almost $5 million, are being funded in 2001-02 as government continues implementation of the Ministerial Panel recommendations.
These initiatives include the creation of a Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation. The Centre will provide web based high school courses to all students, including adults, wishing to complete a high school program. Teachers also will benefit through quality online professional development programs and resources. We are optimistic that the technology skills crucial for success in the knowledge based economy, fostered through the Centre, will reinforce governmentís rural economic diversification strategy.
September will see new curriculum for mathematics, language arts, physical education, and technology education implemented. As well, on a pilot basis, new courses in Newfoundland and Labrador history and religious education will be introduced. Funding is also provided for a music specialist to support program development in this area of the curriculum.
We are extending for another year the $900,000 increase made last year to teacher professional development. A total of $4.4 million is allocated in the new fiscal year for professional development to assist teachers improve teaching and learning strategies.
Increasing Literacy Levels
A $500,000 allocation is being made in support of the Strategic Literacy Plan. Addressing literacy is an important component of the Jobs and Growth agenda because of the role literacy plays in employment, career and business opportunities. The plan is working to ensure the supports are in place so that anyone who wants to can improve their literacy skills.
Our commitment to providing our libraries with the most current reading materials also will be strengthened through an allocation of $1 million for the purchase of library books in addition to our regular annual funding.
Improving School Facilities
An additional $23 million has been allocated to address priority school construction and renovation projects. This brings the total investment planned in school buildings since 1998-99 to $160 million.
To date, eight new schools have been constructed, with 10 others in either the planning or construction stages. In addition, major renovations or extensions have been completed to another 27 schools throughout the province.
Parity in School Busing
To achieve parity in the school busing system throughout the province, $800,000 is allocated to extend free bus transportation service to junior and senior high school students in St. Johnís who live more than 1.6 kilometers from their school. As a result of this initiative, all students, regardless of their grade level or where they live in the province, will have access to free school bus transportation.
Fully Investing the Savings from Reform
Mr. Speaker, education reform provided an opportunity to reinvest savings from school board consolidations and school closures into services for children. School board consolidations have resulted in savings totaling $55 million since 1997-98. These savings have been fully reinvested. In fact, we have provided a further $160 million through our school construction and renovation program. In addition, all savings from school closures and enrolment declines have been reinvested. The amount reinvested to date from these savings is in excess of $34 million.
Supporting Post Secondary Education
Another component of our commitment to investing in our youth is support for post secondary education and for our graduates. Provincial funding for public post secondary institutions has increased by 21.3 percent since 1997-98.
For students, affordability is a critical element of educational opportunities. Over the past two years, we have provided funding so that Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic could implement a tuition freeze. Tuition fees at Memorial are already the lowest in Atlantic Canada.
Mr. Speaker, this year, we are providing $3.3 million in additional funding to Memorial University to enable a 10 percent reduction in tuition for the new academic year commencing in September.
Funding will be provided to enable students at the Faculty of Medicine, the Marine Institute and the College of the North Atlantic to continue to benefit from the tuition freeze. Our public college fees, already substantially lower than Memorial, are the second lowest in Atlantic Canada.
Lowering Student Debt
Student debt is also an important issue. Too many students graduate with debt levels that place a great burden on their futures. We already spend $6.1 million annually to assist students with high debt loads who successfully complete their academic programs on time.
The Student Aid Review Advisory Committee will be making recommendations for our consideration later this year. We have to take time to consider this issue in consultation with stakeholders and plan to come forward with further relief measures in due course. This will require reform of the Student Aid Program. We will also press the federal government to initiate similar student loan reforms.
A New Student Investment and Opportunity Corporation
Mr. Speaker, today, we are also announcing the creation of a new Student Investment and Opportunity Corporation with an initial investment totaling $8.8 million. The corporation will enhance youth employment programs, which will assist in addressing the student debt issue. The corporation will absorb $4.8 million in existing youth employment programs, as well as receive an additional $4 million for new initiatives. The programs of the corporation will aid post secondary students gain work experience and employment which will offset the cost of their education. It will help us address key youth concerns, including high youth unemployment and making the successful transition from school to work.
Investing in Facilities and Research
We are also making significant investments in our post secondary facilities and in their research capacities.
We have committed to match private donations to the MUN Opportunity Fund, which provides both scholarships for students and capital improvements at the university. This year we will make a payment of $3 million, bringing our total contribution to date to $21.3 million.
For new facilities, including classroom space and library resources, as well as building renewal at the College of the North Atlantic, $8.1 million is provided in the new year.
An allocation of $500,000 will assist Memorial and the College of the North Atlantic to access federal funding for research and development from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Investing in Health
Mr. Speaker, there is ample evidence of our commitment to health in each and every budget over the last five years. In 1997, when we were faced with an unacceptably high budget deficit, expenditures were cut in every department except Health. As our fiscal situation improved, we made major investments in health every year thereafter. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, per capita public sector spending on health in this province was below the Canadian average until 1996. Since 1997, however, we have exceeded the average each year. For 2000, public sector health spending in this province was 12.5 percent more per capita than the Canadian average.
In the new fiscal year, we will be adding $114 million more to our health and community services budget, money that will go to fund the important day to day operation of the health sector. Mr. Speaker, this is the largest single increase ever made by any government in the history of the province. This represents a 9 percent increase over the level of funding provided last year.
Our annual contribution to operating health services has increased from $1 billion in 1996-97 to about $1.4 billion in 2001-02. This is an increase of about $400 million, close to 40 percent, in just five years. Mr. Speaker, new funding for the health sector on this scale is unprecedented in our history.
In addition to funding operating costs, over $400 million in capital investments have been made since 1996-97, both by the health care boards and by government directly. This money provides for new facilities, as well as renovations to existing ones, and health equipment in every region. When the monies government is providing or has approved for 2001-02 are added in, the amount committed over the six year period will total almost half a billion dollars.
Health Care Workforce
In this budget, government continues to provide more money for health care workers. Excluding the union contracts under negotiation, $47 million more is allocated to staff the health system. This is necessary both to retain our skilled workforce, as well as to recruit required professionals. The budget provides for the further implementation of pay equity in the health sector, additional funding for physicians and a base salary increase for home support workers.
Most home support workers currently receive $5.84 an hour. These workers will see their wage rate rise this year in two steps to $7.01 an hour. This is a much needed increase of 20 percent in a period of less than one year to correct a salary anomaly for these lower paid workers.
An additional $11 million has been allocated for physicians, some of which is for new positions. This will contribute to our good record of physician retention and recruitment. From 1998 to 2000 there has been a net gain of 61 physicians for the province, 34 general practitioners and 27 specialists. This is not to say that every community has all the doctors they would like, but it does show that we have had some success in ensuring an adequate number of physicians for the province. A further $600,000 is provided for the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University, supporting new physicians for the province and improving our ability to recruit specialists.
Of the new money for health care workers, $25 million is provided to fund the reclassification of nurses and other professional staff undertaken last year. A reclassification review is currently underway for laboratory and x-ray technicians which will be completed later this year.
The budget provides an increase of $14.8 million for priority programs. This money is incremental funding for our drug programs, blood supply, road ambulance operations and medical transportation assistance program.
Included is $2.4 million to continue increasing the number of cardiac surgeries, which will go from 12 cases a week in 1999 up to 20 per week later this year. As well, $710,000 is provided to increase the level of cardiac catheterizations.
In addition, the subsidy to personal care homes will increase for the second consecutive year by $1.3 million, bringing the total to $12 million annually. As a result, our contribution to monthly rates is rising to about $1,000. The number of individual clients receiving subsidies will also increase. Our plan is to move to providing more personal subsidies rather than subsidizing facilities.
As well, $2.1 million will permit the pharmacy dispensing fee for income support recipients to be raised to $6.50, fully restoring it to the level prior to the 1996 budget.
Health Care Facilities
Ongoing construction and renovation projects at a number of facilities around the province will receive $50 million in funding in 2001-02. Major work is ongoing at Gander, Stephenville, Grand Bank, Bonne Bay, Fogo and Old Perlican. Work will also commence on a new long term care facility at Clarenville.
Investing in Modern Equipment
Part of our commitment to health care has been an investment of over $100 million for new equipment over the last five years. This budget provides a further $32.4 million to modernize diagnostic and therapeutic equipment at facilities all across the province. Of this amount, a $17.4 million contribution comes from the federal government as part of the First Ministersí Agreement on Health Renewal. Purchases will include CT scanners, mammography units and therapeutic equipment for acute care, as well as priority equipment for residential care needs in nursing homes.
Stabilizing Health Board Budgets
We will again this year be increasing the base budgets of institutional health boards. In 2001-02, this additional funding for health board operations will be $50 million. Mr. Speaker, this is the largest single annual increment of the last five years. For the new fiscal year, base budgets for boards will be $111.7 million higher than they were five years ago. This increase will stabilize board funding and allow them to operate within balanced budgets. This will position them to achieve efficiencies and focus on future service improvements.
We are also placing greater emphasis on community based health services and population health programs. Health and community services boards will receive incremental funding of $7 million.
Regional Health Forums
Mr. Speaker, to help government build a vision for health and community services for the future, a series of province wide regional health forums will be held this year. The forums will permit community partners to assist us in seeking consensus on the principles necessary to improve quality in the health system, ensure long term sustainability, provide equitable access, maintain affordability and enhance public accountability.
Federal Transfers for Social Programs
Mr. Speaker, funding health, in particular, is an ever increasing challenge given the limited flexibility in our fiscal position. In large measure, responsibility for this lies with the federal government, whose contribution to provincial social program funding, including health, was much higher in the past and must be increased.
Even with the federal commitment to increase CHST cash transfers out to 2005-06, our share in five years time will be $61 million less than it was seven years ago. For the new fiscal year, it will be $92 million less than it was seven years ago. Nationally, the federal share of funding social programs will again be in decline each year after 2001-02. Not only should the federal government make larger cash contributions to provincial social program funding, this should be done in a manner that delivers more of that funding to those provinces most in need. One way the federal government could do this is by revitalizing the Equalization program.
Helping Those Most in Need
Strategic Social Plan
Mr. Speaker, funding of $2 million for implementation of the Strategic Social Plan will be maintained in the new fiscal year, supporting the work of the six regional steering committees, all now operational.
The Strategic Social Plan recognizes the importance of promoting the links between social and economic development. Good social policy and investments in social programming support economic progress. To the extent that people are prepared to participate fully in the life of the community and achieve their potential, economic investment finds a place to take hold and flourish. This government has made significant changes to the delivery of income support to assist clients to access the training and supports they need to find and maintain work.
The Single Parent Employment Support Program has been an innovative and successful pilot partnership between government and the Single Parents Association of Newfoundland. Of the 239 single parents who participated in this pilot, 124 are currently employed and 40 are no longer in receipt of income support.
In the words of one person who had been in receipt of social assistance for seven years prior to enrolling in this program: "My whole life has changed. Now I am sure that good things are beginning to happen to me".
Another person who participated in both our "New Beginnings" program and "Skills for Success" program said, "It was at New Beginnings that I got on the right track". She is now enrolled at Memorial University and is pursuing her ambition to go into nursing.
These cases, and others, demonstrate how investing in people and in community infrastructure is an investment in economic prosperity down the road.
In recognition of the important work done by the Womenís Centres across the province in delivering community based services, I am pleased to announce that funding for the seven centres will be increased. When the federal government stopped funding Womenís Centres in 1998, the province stepped in to enable the centres to maintain operations. During pre-budget consultations, womenís organizations across the province highlighted increased funding for the centres as an important priority. Mr. Speaker, their operational funding will increase by two-thirds to $50,000 each.
NLHC Community Centres
Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation community centres also provide valuable educational, recreational, social and health programs to many individuals and families. To permit the centres to enhance their operations by offsetting the cost of program co-ordinators, $140,000 is allocated in the new fiscal year.
Pensions and the Seniorsí Benefit
Government has grappled for some years with the issue of public service pensions. A plan is in place that will see the pension funds put on a sustainable financial footing over time. Government is concerned about the well being of low income seniors generally, including low income public service pensioners.
In 1999, we implemented a low income seniorsí benefit. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to announce today that we are increasing the benefit by 50 percent from $200 to $300 annually. As well, the low income threshold at which the benefit begins to phase down is being raised from $12,000 to $14,000. All seniors aged 65 and over, with annual family income of less than $20,000, will receive either a full or partial benefit, regardless of any other pension income they may receive. Those with family income of $14,000 or less will receive the full $300 benefit. Mr. Speaker, this action demonstrates our commitment to assist low income seniors financially, within our means.
Newfoundland and Labrador Child Benefit
The Newfoundland and Labrador Child Benefit provides financial support to low income families with dependent children. I am pleased to announce that we are increasing the eligibility thresholds to allow more families to receive the benefit. Previously, families with incomes below $15,931 received the full benefit. This is now raised to $16,744. The phase down thresholds are also increased.
Opening Doors Program
I am also pleased to announce that an additional $600,000 will be added to the Opening Doors Program over the next three years. The expanded program will increase the number of permanent, full time employment opportunities in the public sector for people with disabilities. The program is a partnership between government and NAPE to create job opportunities for people with disabilities.
Debt Relief Program
We will continue to assist municipalities experiencing financial difficulty through the Debt Relief Program. Mr. Speaker, we are making an additional $10 million available for the program in the new year, bringing our total commitment since initiating the program five years ago to $35 million.
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