03/26/2014 03:30 EDT | Updated 05/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Nurses dispute, budget expected to dominate Nova Scotia legislature

HALIFAX - A looming strike by nurses is expected to top the agenda when the Nova Scotia legislature returns Thursday, a week ahead of the Liberal government's first budget.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the government will ensure patient safety if 2,400 registered nurses employed by Halifax-area hospitals walk off the job, but he hasn't given a clear indication how the province would respond to a walkout.

The nurses, who are represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, are in a legal strike position April 3 — the same day the budget is tabled — but have threatened to strike illegally if the legislation is introduced before then declaring them an essential service.

McNeil has urged the union and the Capital District Health Authority to resume bargaining after mediated talks broke down Sunday. He wouldn't say whether some form of essential services legislation would be introduced Thursday.

Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie said his Progressive Conservatives believe the province has to take steps to prevent strikes in the health-care sector and the government should pass legislation requiring "fair and independent" binding arbitration so sides in similar disputes know the end result when agreements can't be reached.

McNeil has already ruled out binding arbitration in the nurses dispute, saying it would be unacceptable for a third party to determine what the province is able to pay.

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said the introduction of essential services legislation could slow the business of the house from the start, although she wouldn't say exactly what her party would do.

A month ago, the NDP used stalling tactics to prevent the immediate passage of essential services legislation during a special sitting aimed at ending a strike by 420 home-care workers in Halifax.

"There are so many unknowns around what a piece of legislation like that would actually do," said MacDonald.

In the early days of the session, the Liberals will also introduce their first budget since the party won a majority government in October. Finance Minister Diana Whalen has warned of a deficit in the 2014-15 budget.

Earlier this month, she said poor economic growth has continued to affect government revenue and that the pressure wasn't expected to ease. Whalen also said the government was grappling with program costs and with recent wage settlements.

Baillie said the budget represents a big moment for the Liberals.

"They've studied everything under the sun since election day last fall and now it's time to actually make some decisions and govern," he said.

The Liberals forecast a $481.7 million deficit for 2013-14 in an update released in December.