03/27/2013 01:58 EDT | Updated 05/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia's finance minister offers small tax cut to small business

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's finance minister invoked the name of social democratic icon Tommy Douglas in a pre-budget speech Wednesday that repeated the NDP government's pledge to table a balanced fiscal plan, but gave no clues as to how that goal will be reached.

Maureen MacDonald, speaking at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon, said the fabled premier of Saskatchewan — leader of Canada's first socialist government — remains a role model because he tabled 17 balanced budgets.

"I like to think if Tommy Douglas could see us now, he would approve of Nova Scotia's first NDP government," MacDonald said.

The reference to Douglas comes just a week before MacDonald tables what will likely be her last budget before an election campaign.

Premier Darrell Dexter's majority government, in the fourth year of its mandate, finds itself trailing in the polls, partly because its fiscally conservative approach has failed to inspire traditional NDP voters, says Tom Urbaniak, a professor at Cape Breton University.

"This is not a government that has lit many fires under people," Urbaniak said in a recent interview. "Some of the base is a little tired and the rest of the province has not been inspired."

The rest of MacDonald's speech focused on how the government has worked hard to reduce spending and spur economic development.

MacDonald said one of the major initiatives in the April 4 budget will be a plan to simplify access to programs for small businesses. She also said the small business tax would be cut half a percentage point to three per cent — the lowest rate in 20 years.

The moves were applauded by Paula Gallagher, chairwoman of the chamber of commerce.

"The budget reflects the fact that the minister and the government have listened to what matters to the business community" she said after the speech. "We were looking for the government to balance the budget. They said they would."

However, Liberal critic Diana Whalen said the budget promise is something that should be viewed with skepticism.

Whalen said with the province facing a projected $277-million deficit in 2012-13, the government will be forced to use some kind of fiscal sleight-of-hand to balance the books.

"We think there's a lot of fiction in what we're hearing today," she said, adding that MacDonald may jack up the province's 1,500 user fees after the budget is tabled to bring the books in line.