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Balancing books still top priority for Liberals

WATCH ABOVE: Heading into budget finance minister focused on balancing the books

Finance Minister Randy Delorey will table his budget Tuesday afternoon, with an eye to balance the books.

The budget “reflects the mandate Nova Scotians gave us to continue on the path towards fiscal sustainability,” Delorey said Friday afternoon. Balancing the province’s books is priority No. 1 in Delorey’s mandate letter from Premier Stephen McNeil, which directs him to “balance the provincial budget within government’s mandate.”

Despite the heavy focus on getting back in the black, the Liberals’ sales pitch is that the 2016-17 budget will be about “investment”.

McNeil said weeks ago it will make daycare more affordable for families and will also include a salary boost for early childhood educators.

In March, the government released a report on early childhood education in Nova Scotia. It found that staff are the lowest paid compared to other provinces, and that subsidies for low income families are also insufficient. At the time, education minister Karen Casey called the circumstances “absolutely disgusting and shameful.”

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At a pre-budget speech in March, Delorey said he thought Nova Scotians would be “comfortable” with his budget, telling reporters “I don’t think we will see protests around Province House.”

Last year, thousands of protesters descended on the legislature after the Liberals axed the film and TV tax credit.

What to look for in the 2016-17 budget

The split focus on balancing the books while also trying to present a good news budget raises the question on how the government can achieve both.

The province’s deficit climbed dramatically at the last update in December and sits at $241 million. That’s more than double the $98 million predicted in last year’s budget.

Some of that increase in the deficit was due to the one-time $98 million payment for decommissioning the Sable Offshore Energy Project. That likely won’t weigh down the books in the upcoming budget, the bigger concern for the Liberals are the sagging revenue numbers. The December update also revised down all major revenue sources, including personal income tax, corporate income tax and HST.

A year ago, the Liberals predicted the 2016-17 budget would see a surplus of $22.6 million.

In his year-end interview with Global News, McNeil said balancing the books in 2015-16 would be “more challenging,” given the December update. The Liberals also used the December update for political cover when Delorey tabled wage legislation for the public sector on the same day as the fiscal update – that bill isn’t proclaimed yet but if it is, it will freeze public sector wages for two years.

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Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie says he’s concerned the government will use a one-time windfall from the federal and municipal governments to help boost the books for the coming year. The completion of the Nova Centre this year means the province could get some of the cost-share from the other levels of government. In January, Delorey said the province would get Ottawa’s $51 million share once the project is completed, but he said the city would pay its share over 25 years. Baillie wants any money received in 2016-17 to be set aside in a separate account to cover future lease payments for the convention centre rather than using it in general revenue for the 2016-17 budget.

“I don’t want them to use accounting tricks to make the budget look better than it really is,” Baillie said.

Meantime NDP Leader Gary Burrill says he wants the Liberals to “make a course correction,” and focus solely on improving the lives of Nova Scotians rather than balancing the budget. Increasing income assistance, covering the tuition of low income students and studying a guaranteed minimum income are among his priorities.

The budget will be tabled in the Legislature around 1:15 p.m.

With a file from the Canadian Press