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JIM VIBERT: Casey croons government’s biggest hits

March 26, 2019—Finance and Treasury Board Minister Karen Casey answers questions from the media on her 2019-20 budget, in lock up prior to introducing her budget in the legislature.
ERIC WYNNE/Chronicle Herald
March 26, 2019—Finance and Treasury Board Minister Karen Casey answers questions from the media on her 2019-20 budget, in lock up prior to introducing her budget in the legislature. ERIC WYNNE/Chronicle Herald

Basking in the lustre of four successive balanced budgets and with nothing but positive fiscal forecasts into the future, Nova Scotia’s Finance Minister Karen Casey belted out the government’s greatest hits for a receptive audience at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce Tuesday.

Nova Scotia’s population reached its highest level ever last year — about 960,000 — when the province recorded the strongest population growth in over three decades. For the third year in a row, more young people chose to stay than go. A record number of immigrants settled in Nova Scotia and the immigration retention rate now stands at 71 per cent — the highest in the region. Unemployment is just over five per cent in Halifax and 6.9 per cent provincewide.

While some of us have more than a little difficulty connecting the dots from balanced budgets to population growth or immigrant settlement, the Liberal provincial government suffers no such gaps in its logical progression.

For Premier Stephen McNeil and his ministers everything seems to be launched from the solid base of sound financial management or, as the finance minister put it, “our improved fiscal position has created a strong foundation upon which to build.”

And, even after six years in government, they still don’t miss many opportunities to remind Nova Scotians that when they arrived in 2013, Nova Scotia was saddled with a deficit of $680 million.

“We understood the limitations that deficit budgets impose on governments and the financial burden for future generations. Deficit budgets limit innovation and investment and curtail the ability to manage unexpected events. Our vision did not, and does not, include deficit budgeting,” Casey told the business crowd.

Nova Scotia appears on track to achieve the goal set by the One Nova Scotia Commission of a 30 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio by 2024. The ratio was over 38 per cent in 2014 when the McNeil government brought down its first budget and will be reduced to 33.8 per cent by March 31, 2020, the end of the current fiscal year.

Improved fiscal capacity allowed the province to increase the health budget by 18.6 per cent, or $728 million since 2013, and the education budget by nearly 30 per cent to $1.43 billion over the same period.

Predictably, the minister’s speech didn’t address any of the negative economic indicators NDP leader Gary Burrill has made a mantra. Nova Scotia has the lowest median income in the nation; is the only province in Canada where child poverty has increased since the new Canada Child Benefit came into effect; and it competes chronically with Saskatchewan for the lowest minimum wage in the nation.

Instead, the minister drew attention to some of the big investments the province is making, most notably in new hospital facilities planned for Halifax and Cape Breton and the $193 million the province set aside to bring high-speed internet to homes and businesses in rural Nova Scotia. That $193 million came from a windfall in offshore revenues, but the McNeil government had the good fortune — and good timing — to be there when the cheque arrived, so the credit’s theirs to claim.

Speaking to a business crowd, the minister was not going to miss the chance to reel off the list of tax breaks the government has provided, including a small business tax holiday for new businesses, an increased tax threshold for small business and the enhanced basic exemption.

The premier’s pet project — reducing the regulatory burden the government puts on businesses — is paying off. The province estimates it is saving businesses about $34 million annually in compliance costs, and it plans to up its game and set new targets to cut regulatory burden yet.

“As a government, we have continued to focus on creating the conditions for economic growth. We believe in private-sector-led growth, and that as a government, we work side-by-side to achieve success,” she said.

The government has a good fiscal story to tell, although some would point to some of the measures the government took to get there, like the end to the film tax credit that crippled that industry and government’s rocky relationship with public sector unions.

And, while the minister can select economic indicators that paint a promising picture, opposition politicians can choose different stats to expose the province’s stubborn poverty rates.

That’s likely why the minister’s speech stuck to the province’s fiscal and economic progress and did not stray into the more troubling social and economic inequities the government has yet to address seriously.

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