Budget 2014: Back in black

Bill English
Bill English
Finance Minister Bill English has delivered an election year Budget which delivers a bigger than forecast surplus, free doctors' visits for 400,000 more children, big cuts to ACC levies and dangles the prospect of tax cuts in front of voters.

Mr English said the Government's much vaunted return to surplus would be $372 million, still slender but well ahead of the wafer thin $86 million forecast six months ago thanks to a rosier economic outlook.

With the books back in the black and the economy gathering steam, Mr English said this was the first Budget in six years "to focus on managing a growing economy rather than recovering from a domestic recession and then the global financial crisis''.

The $1 billion in new spending is dominated by "a $500 million package of extra support for children and families''.

While that new spending includes a well flagged extension to paid parental leave, it also features $90 million over three years from next year to extend free doctors' visits and prescriptions to all children under 13. Previously it was limited to children under 6.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the move, which takes effect from July next year, would benefit more than 400,000 primary school-aged children and their families.

A $172 million a year extension to paid parental leave will initially take it from the current 14 to 16 weeks on April 1 next year, rising to 18 weeks 12 months later.

Mr English also said eligibility would be extended to "home for life'' foster caregivers and those in part time, casual work or with multiple employers.

The Government will also "significantly boost'' the parental tax credit available to working families not on a benefit and not receiving paid parental leave. It will go from $150 a week to $200 on April 1 next year.

Mr English also flagged a $480 million cut to ACC levies from next year including cuts to motor vehicle levies which could cut the average private car levy by about $130 a year.

The Budget shows surpluses rising to $1.3 billion next year and $3.5 billion after that.

New spending in subsequent Budgets would rise to $1.5 billion next year and by 2 per cent a year after that. Mr English said that was the upper limit for increases that would, combined with reprioritised spending, allow for "additional support for New Zealanders, without pushing interest rates higher than they would otherwise be''.

Any government that raised spending by more than that, "needs to explain the effect on interest rates'' Mr English said at the Budget lock-up early this afternoon.

"This moderate increase will provide the Government with future options around investment in public services and modest tax reductions", Mr English said.

He said the Government was "not prejudging the size of any tax reduction'' or the proportion of future operating allowances that would go to them.

"We haven't established a view about it. No doubt there will be a debate about that over the next months and years.''

Among the big ticket items of Government spending, health will receive $1.8 billion in extra funding over the next four years.

Education receives $857 million in new spending over four years, the including $156 million in new spending over four years for early childhood education to keep fees "affordable'' and encourage participation rates.

The Budget sets out how $1 billion of the $4.7 billion raised through asset sales will be spent this year. Health will receive $200 million of that including $67 million for the new Grey Base Hospital on the West Coast.

Struggling state rail company KiwiRail receives yet another $198 million for its troubled "Turnaround Plan'' including $25 million for to pay for repairs to Cook Strait ferry Aratere. That takes the total bill for fixing up KiwiRail to over $1 billion since 2010-11 or $2.4 billion since 2008.

$172.5 million goes to the upgrade and repair of schools, and irrigation projects will receive $40 million.

In addition to projects funded by asset sales cash, $375 million of new capital funding in the form of an interest free loan will go to the New Zealand Transport Agency to speed up $815 million worth of Auckland transport projects aimed at reducing congestion.

However the Budget contains scant direct relief for first home buyers, with the only new initiative being the temporary suspension of tariffs and duties on building products which the Government said would reduce the cost of a standard new home by about $3500.

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