01/24/2013 01:00 EST | Updated 03/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Finance minister says groups don't want Nova Scotia budget balanced at any cost

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's finance minister says she's hearing from a variety of public and private organizations that the province's books shouldn't be balanced at any cost.

Maureen MacDonald said Thursday while it's still early in the public-consultation process, a consensus seems to be emerging that balancing the projected $277-million deficit shouldn't be done through deep cuts to health care, education and other public services.

MacDonald said she's hearing the message from a range of interests including chambers of commerce and advocacy groups.

While there are differing opinions on balancing the budget this year as promised, MacDonald said no one has said it has to be done.

"Nobody has hard and fast said it absolutely has to be," she said. "There's always that qualifier that it shouldn't be at any cost and they are asking us to keep that in mind."

But MacDonald stopped short of saying the government would put off the balancing budget promise until next year, adding that the consultations would simply present her with options.

"Some people are saying that if the only way to balance the budget is by making deep cuts in health care, education and other important services, then the government should be open to putting off balancing in the coming year," she said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said MacDonald's language indicates she's getting ready to break the government's promise to balance the books in this spring's budget.

Last month, MacDonald warned balancing the budget would be "challenging" in the current fiscal climate.

On Thursday she cited the Bank of Canada's latest statement that it had misjudged the strength of the Canadian economy, which grew only one per cent in the last three months and not at the 2.5 per cent rate expected.

The federal government has already said lower than projected growth is hurting government revenues.