Nova Scotians are being peppered with government largesse and good-news announcements on the eve of an expected election call, with the latest revelation being an even bigger surplus than originally predicted in the April budget.
The NDP government says its projected budget surplus has increased to $18.4-million from $16.4-million – good economic news as the province is buzzing about Premier Darrell Dexter preparing to drop the writ as early as this week. Elected in 2009, Mr. Dexter is approaching his fifth year in office.
News of the larger surplus and that fact that the NDP is still on track to deliver a balanced budget came in an economic update on Monday – the earliest this government has ever delivered its update. By law, it has to submit the forecast by Sept. 30.
So intent is Mr. Dexter on delivering the news that he did not wait for his Finance Minister, Maureen MacDonald, to recover from a bout of shingles. Rather, he called on Graham Steele, his former finance minister, to play an "acting" role.
"Okay, whoever thought I'd be up here doing this again?" Mr. Steele said as he prepared to announce the new figures.
Mr. Steele, considered one of Mr. Dexter's most able ministers, stepped down as finance minister in May, 2012, announcing that he would remain as an MLA until the next election.
But a year later Mr. Steele, who is a Rhodes Scholar and bilingual, was pressed back into service when Mr. Dexter appointed him as Minister of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, succeeding Percy Paris, who was charged with assaulting another MLA.
Lately, he has been the face of the government, announcing last week an $8.25-million loan to build a golf course in Cape Breton and later negotiations to restart the ferry service between Yarmouth and Portland, Me. The government had killed the service just after it came into office, saying it could not afford the annual $6-million subsidy for the ferry.
A week ago, Mr. Steele was appointed acting finance minister and will remain in the job until Ms. MacDonald recovers, likely later this month.
Against this background, Mr. Steele cautioned not to read anything into the timing of the fiscal update. "This is not really an unusually early date," he said. Documentation included with his announcement listed the dates of other fiscal updates, showing that in 2007 the Progressive Conservative government delivered an update on Aug. 9.
Mr. Steele added that the Liberal Opposition and even the Chronicle Herald newspaper has called on the government to deliver its update before an election call. "So there are lots of reasons to do it and that's why it's being done at this time," he said, stressing that he did not know when an election would be called. However, he said he expects that it would be sooner rather than later.
There was even more good news as Mr. Steele was able to slip in the fact that the projected surplus would have been even higher had the cut-off for gathering the data for the update been a little later. He noted that last Friday afternoon further information came in on corporate income tax that would have increased the surplus an additional $11-million.
Don Mills of Corporate Research Associates, a pollster in the region, believes that the government felt it needed to prove it is on track to balance the budget before going to the polls. This avoids criticism that it was trying to cover something up by calling an election, he said.
"That makes good political sense if they are going to the election in the next week or so," he said. "They're doing everything they can to look like they're going to have an election soon."