Nova Scotia's finance minister presented a balanced budget on Thursday with a slim surplus of $16.4 million, fulfilling a modified promise the New Democratic Party made more than three years ago to return the province to the black.
The 2013-14 budget marks the first time Premier Darrell Dexter's government has presented a balanced budget since it came to power in 2009. It makes Nova Scotia one of four provinces across the country to table balanced budgets for the coming year and the only one in Atlantic Canada to do so.
"We are back to balance despite three years of modest revenue growth — not through hoping and wishing," said Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald.
"We are back to balance because we asked the experts, developed a multi-year plan and we stuck to that plan."
Nova Scotia's balanced budget is dependent on extra revenue, equalling an estimated $86.1 million from federal sources and $214.7 million from provincial sources.
It also depends on economic growth to boost personal income tax revenue and reigning in departmental spending to balance the books. To that end, the $9.5-billion budget includes modest cuts to several departments, including traditionally large expenditures such as Education and Early Childhood Development and Community Services.
The government expects to save $81.4 million though those departmental cuts.
Although a fiscal update provided in December forecast a deficit of $277 million, officials revealed Thursday that had ballooned to $356.4 million because of a decline in revenue from personal income tax and corporate and gas taxes.
Nova Scotia's projected debt is now $14 billion, up from $13.8 billion this year.
MacDonald said the balanced budget for 2013-14 marks a landmark achievement for a government that initially promised surpluses in each of the last three years but was hampered by global economic forces beyond its control.
In March 2010, the government revised its promise and said it could balance the budget by the spring of this year.
MacDonald said she's ready to fight an election on Thursday's budget — her first as Nova Scotia's Finance Minister.
"Absolutely, I'm very comfortable fighting an election on this budget and on all the work we've done for four years," she told reporters on Thursday.
The new budget contains an increase in tobacco taxes of two cents per cigarette, which equals 50 cents per pack or $4 per carton.
The tobacco tax rate increase, which takes effect as of midnight on Thursday, is expected to generate an additional $18 million in revenue for the year 2013-14.
Earlier this week, the provincial government also announced it will introduce measures to allow an additional 8,000 low-income seniors to be exempt from paying provincial income tax as of Jan. 1, 2014.
The tax credit will be available to seniors with a taxable income of less than $24,000, bringing the number of seniors exempt from paying provincial income tax from 17,000 to 25,000.
Another 4,000 seniors will also have a portion of their income tax returned to them.
The maximum property tax rebate available to seniors will also increase from $600 to $800 — a figure that would cover about 50 per cent of property tax bills.
Thursday's budget also repeats the government's promise to roll back the HST by one percentage point in 2014 and another percentage point in 2015. Government officials estimate each increased percentage point in the HST is worth about $195 million in annual revenue.
Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness — the province's largest expenditure — got a small increase of $51 million in Thursday's budget, bringing overall spending to $3.9 billion.
There are several new health-care initiatives contained in the 2013-14 budget, with the majority focused on children.
The government has committed to spending $5.3 million to fund insulin pumps and supplies for children up until they turn 19 years old. People under the age of 25 will also have supplies for insulin pumps paid for.
Nova Scotia is also expanding its dental coverage for children. Starting in 2013-14, children aged 13 and under will be able to receive universal dental coverage for check-ups and treatments.
That program is expected to cost $2.1 million.
The disease screening program for newborns will also be expanded for $1.3 million and will now include cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and eight additional conditions.