Halifax, Nova Scotia, Waterfront

The 2021-22 fiscal year saw Nova Scotia record a “surprise” $350.9-million surplus after forecasting a deficit of $584.9 million in the March 2021 budget, Finance Minister Allan MacMaster said Friday.

According to Finance Department officials, the $935.8-million swing from the figure forecast by the previous Liberal government is the largest in the province’s history. The Progressive Conservatives were elected in August 2021.

MacMaster said the province got the first inklings of an improved fiscal picture last November when Statistics Canada provided additional information indicating increased revenues. It allowed MacMaster to forecast a surplus of more than $108 million in his December update.

“It was a nice surprise I can tell you,” MacMaster told reporters, adding that the final surplus number wasn’t known until just a few weeks ago.

The minister said provincial revenues for the fiscal year were $14.1 billion, an increase of $1.3 billion over the budget due to higher tax revenues, the forfeiture of offshore gas licences and federal transfers.

Provincial expenses of $13.7 billion were up $386 million from the budget because of increased pandemic support for health care, additional transfers to municipalities and university infrastructure funding, he said.

MacMaster said the overall figures for the year ending March 31 reflect the province’s stronger-than-anticipated economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Nova Scotia had a smaller economic contraction in 2020 and stronger growth in 2021 than most other provinces,” he said. “In 2021, Nova Scotia’s real GDP grew by 5.8% and our population grew by 2.1% surpassing one million people.”

However, even after the $350-million surplus was applied to the debt, the province ended the fiscal year with a net debt of $16.6 billion — $167.5 million higher than the previous year.

That didn’t prevent opposition finance critics from wondering why the government hasn’t offered more in the way of direct assistance to people now struggling with the increased cost of living due to inflation.

Liberal Fred Tilley pointed to December’s forecast as proof the government knew it had more money to use at its discretion. Tilley said one measure that could have helped Nova Scotians is a yearlong cut to the provincial tax on gasoline, which he suggested in a bill tabled during the spring sitting of the legislature.

“But they (government) chose not to do that, even though they knew there was a surplus,” Tilley said.

New Democrat Lisa Lachance said the government’s inaction was a “lost opportunity.”

“It’s clear the government had the flexibility to provide support,” she said.

But MacMaster was adamant that there wasn’t enough information either last year or before the Progressive Conservative government tabled its first budget in March, which forecasts a $506.2-million deficit for fiscal 2022-23.

“We are always operating with the information we have,” the minister said. “The reality is we have seen a lot of volatility worldwide and all governments are seeing these swings in numbers.”