Maureen MacDonald, speaking about the government's financial statements for the 2012-13 fiscal year, said it was important to consider that while the debt grew by $571 million, the province's debt-to-GDP ratio declined.
The ratio, considered a key indicator of economic health, peaked at 49.1 per cent in 2000-01 when the debt was $12.1 billion, a Finance official said. As of March 31, the figure had dropped to 36.7 per cent — down slightly since the NDP assumed power in 2009.
Still, MacDonald acknowledged that 2012-13 was a tough year for the province, which was still feeling the effects of a prolonged global economic downturn and the sudden closure of three mills in the labour-intensive forestry industry.
"Last year was a horrible year for finance ministers from coast to coast," she told a news conference in Halifax. "The recovery was not as robust as people assumed."
The fiscal statements released Wednesday confirmed that bleak assessment, revealing that the deficit carried in last year's budget was much bigger than originally forecast.
MacDonald said the province will officially record a $302.5-million deficit for the last fiscal year, a $91.3-million jump when compared with the original prediction made in the April 2012 budget.
As for the growing debt, MacDonald said every province has had to turn to deficit financing to stimulate their sputtering economies.
Nova Scotia's fiscal statements also say the province took in $38 million less in revenue than it expected in 2012. With the province's economy still stuck in low gear, revenue from personal income taxes dipped by $53 million.
The latest numbers are important because they stand in stark contrast to the rosy forecasts included in MacDonald's latest budget, tabled in April.
That $9.5-billion fiscal plan included a predicted $16.4 million surplus, largely based on the assumption that the province's economy will improve to the point it will churn an additional $181.6 million in income tax revenue.
"We have a number of really positive economic development opportunities coming to the province," MacDonald said, citing the $25-billion federal shipbuilding contract for the Irving Shipyard in Halifax and the anticipated startup of the Deep Panuke offshore gas production platform.
"That's not just me saying that. That is economists in many major financial institutions and third-party, arm's-length bodies. They have said that our assumptions are reasonable."
Liberal finance critic Diana Whalen had another word to describe the assumptions: "bogus."
"I don't think Nova Scotians are going to believe the picture they're painting," she said. "We are very close to the next election and what the minister said today is that she wants people to believe that everything is rosy. And I don't believe Nova Scotians feel that."
Whalen said the government's own figures suggest this fiscal year will see declining employment and shrinking retail sales, and she zeroed in on the debt and deficit figures.
She said the government's predictions in its April budget, which suggested the 2012-13 deficit could actually be $356.4 million, was a blatant attempt to make a growing deficit look smaller.
"To me, that manipulates people," she said. "I don't think Nova Scotians are that gullible ... (The government) is on track for an election and a narrative that they like, which I don't believe Nova Scotians will fall for."
Premier Darrell Dexter, whose New Democrats were elected to govern with a majority four years ago, must call an election before June of 2014.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the growing debt means the government is leaving a huge bill for future generations.
"All Nova Scotians know that it's our children who will end up paying that debt," he said. "That is the NDP record."
Like Whalen, Baillie said the NDP's latest budget forecast don't reflect reality, noting that the government's own figures suggest meagre economic growth in 2013-14.