Nova Scotia

Opposition leaders say Rankin's plan to balance books rooted in fantasy, electioneering

Premier Iain Rankin says reduced COVID-19 spending requirements and a program review will get him the savings he needs, but opposition leaders say those claims amount to politics.

Tim Houston and Gary Burrill say the rush to balance is the wrong priority right now

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says the premier needs to provide a better accounting of how a reduction in spending of $209 million next year will not affect services. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Nova Scotia's opposition leaders say Premier Iain Rankin's four-year plan to balance the books amounts to nothing more than a pre-election fantasy straight from the Land of Oz.

"That's Judy-Garland-somewhere-over-the-rainbow economics," NDP Leader Gary Burrill told reporters at Province House on Thursday.

At issue for Burrill and Tory Leader Tim Houston is the fact this budget, which sees some major spending increases heading into a likely provincial election, is to be followed by an estimated $209-million decrease in departmental spending in 2022-23.

There are estimated spending increases of $112.4 million in 2023-24 and $2.2 million in 2024-25.

Houston said there are only two ways to get to balance: by making cuts or by growing the economy, and he's not heard anything concrete enough from the government about the latter to convince him that's the plan.

Houston says there needs to be a long-term plan for the province that involves balancing the books, but no one should be rushing to that point right now. (Robert Short/CBC)

He said a budget that includes a spending increase leading into a likely election call, followed by a sharp drop in spending, is "exhibit A for old-school politics."

"I don't think that the budget can be balanced in four years," Houston told reporters at Province House.

"I think that we need to make investments in people, we need to make investments in infrastructure, and if we make the right investments right now, then our economy will benefit from that."

Rankin told reporters the government spent $600 million related to COVID-19 last year and there's a lot of spending connected to the pandemic in this budget.

He said a reduced need for that spending heading into next year, along with a program review his government is preparing to launch, will lead to the savings he requires to get back to balance without compromising service delivery and without requiring public sector layoffs.

The program review will be the first in eight years.

Rankin won't speculate where savings could be found, leaving that instead to the upcoming program review. (Communications Nova Scotia)

"We're going to continue to look at cost savings where appropriate and make sure that every public dollar we spend maximizes return on investment, whether that's from a social perspective, environmental perspective or overall quality of life," said Rankin.

But Burrill said it "defies credibility" for Rankin to suggest he can remove $209 million in departmental spending in a single year without it "inflicting dramatic damage on the fabric of the province," and he challenged the premier to provide better accounting of the plan.

Burrill pointed to previous budgets following the Liberals' election win in 2013 that saw reduced funding for a number of organizations, including long-term care homes, mental health organizations and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

He said the full focus of the government should be on economic recovery, not balancing the books as soon as possible.

"Even very conservative jurisdictions are talking about the elimination of operational annual deficits over periods of eight, 10, a dozen years — not four," he said.