03/22/2012 10:24 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

'Alternative' Nova Scotia budget: more money for education, health

HALIFAX - An independent think-tank says the Nova Scotia government should focus more on health and education instead of its "obsession" with balancing the books before the end of its mandate.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a so-called alternative budget Wednesday that it says better reflects Nova Scotia's fiscal reality while strengthening provincial coffers.

Among its suggestions, the centre recommends delaying balancing the budget until 2015-16, saying the NDP government's current goal of 2013-14 has led to cuts in public spending and job losses.

"Austerity does not come for free," Christine Saulnier, the centre's Nova Scotia director, said in a statement.

"The alternative budget's approach of investing in the people of our province is a balanced approach suited for long-term forward progress, instead of a short-sighted obsession with balancing the budget."

The centre proposes slashing tuition fees at the Nova Scotia Community College in half while spending $45 million in an early learning and child-care system. It recommends spending another $20.5 million on education for black and aboriginal students, plus those with special needs.

On the health and social front, the centre's budget calls for an increase in the personal allowance for income assistance and allocating more money for community health centres, nurse practitioners and midwives.

The plan also says $30 million should be set aside for water and wastewater infrastructure in the province, and another $20 million to help create a provincial transit system in rural areas.

The provincial government has asked school boards and health authorities to tighten their belts as it works toward balancing the budget by next spring.

Finance Minister Graham Steele said Tuesday the government is sticking to that goal.

In a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, Steele said his budget on April 3 will include a modest cut in personal income tax, but one that won't be offered to all taxpayers.

The centre, however, said ensuring public services for all Nova Scotians would be better approach than a limited tax cut.

Steele also provided an update this week on the progress of the 2011-12 budget, which had forecast a deficit of $389.6 million. He said the latest figures show the deficit will actually be $128.8 million smaller at $260.8 million as the fiscal year ends March 31.