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BY JENNY LONG
SYDNEY NSW treasurer Michael Egan delivered the state budget on May 29 with much fanfare about state tax cuts, new capital works spending and funds to bail out insurance policy holders who lost out in the HIH collapse. But amid the congratulatory verbiage, a few lone voices pointed out how conservative the Labor government's spending on public services really is and criticised its favouring of the private sector.
A big feature of the media's budget coverage was its focus on capital works spending on roads, railways, hospitals and schools. These initiatives are targeted at voters concerned about increasing unemployment and the run-down condition of public infrastructure following years of neglect.
The headlined tax cuts weren't exactly new initiatives, with the Financial Institutions Duty due to be phased out on July 1 under the agreement with the federal government that came with the introduction of the GST. The revenue-modest but highly unpopular and regressive Bank Accounts Debits Tax will be scrapped three years earlier than agreed. Other tax cuts are directed at business. They include a reduction in payroll tax from 6.2% to 6% and a rise in the threshold above which duty is payable on commercial leases from $3000 to $20,000.
The government has committed very little to lift staff levels for public social services. The exception is in the state's jails and juvenile detention facilities, which were enthusiastically hailed as a growth industry by the treasurer. More than $218 million will be spent. An extra 300 prison officers will be recruited, 750 new prison beds opened, three new jails built, two new children's courts will replace existing facilities, a new juvenile detention centre will be constructed for girls and two other juvenile detention centres will be revamped.
In comparison, there was no budget allocation to fund a pay increase awarded to social and community services workers by the state Industrial Relations Commission in 2000. Only 2042 new dwellings are to be added to the pool of public housing in the state.
Public hospitals will benefit from capital works to address the inadequacy of many facilities due to previous underfunding and to provide new services to areas of population growth. However, there will be few new state health services and little overall growth in the numbers of hospital staff or beds.
There will be a relatively modest increase in state funding for primary health care services and an extra $10 million for the joint Commonwealth-State Home and Community Program which includes the meals-on-wheels service.
Total spending on education has risen 5.6% to $7.6 billion, 22% of the state budget and equal to the health budget. However, much of the new spending is to fund the pay increase due to teachers in July.
There is $257 million allocated for capital works on state schools and TAFE colleges to tackle big backlogs in maintenance and replacement of demountable classrooms and libraries, as well as the building of school halls.
The increase allocated to the state system, including TAFEs, is dwarfed by a 12% hike in funding for private schools, not including the $240 million already spent by the government to subsidise private students' transport to school.
Welcoming the capital works for public schools, NSW Teachers' Federation (NSWTF) president Sue Simpson said it would not satisfy those school communities angry that their local public school is being closed to pay for much needed maintenance to those public schools left standing. The government is restructuring several inner-city schools, which involves the merger and closure of a number of schools, and the sale of the land.
The NSWTF condemned the government's failure to increase resources for primary schools, which will have the effect of maintaining unacceptably high class sizes, increasing the gap between schools in richer and poorer areas, and increasing the drift of better-off students to the private school system.
Simpson said the union's budget submission had called for lower class sizes in the early years of schooling as is happening in other states and a greater number of early intervention programs. Parents know, and research continues to show, that early help in assessing learning difficulties pays off the in the adolescent years, she added.
Courses and staffing levels at TAFEs will continue to suffer savage cuts that characterised the period before the Olympic Games. For example, at the Sydney Institute of Technology's Ultimo campus, 64 class support positions are slated to go within weeks and the government will phase out the courses previously serviced by those staff, to the benefit of the private sector and the user-pays-oriented universities. This follows a cut of 630, mainly teaching, jobs across TAFE following the government's 1999 budget. Ultimo staff have begun a campaign of industrial action against the job losses.
The budget has prioritised road building activities over public transport, with plans for two key rail projects being significantly pegged back in recent months.
The NSW Council of Social Service has pointed out that government is creating two classes of poor by restricting assistance to pay utilities bills and health services to aged pensioners, while other welfare dependants miss out.