HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Liberal government is expected to present a balanced budget Thursday that many believe will lay the groundwork for an election call that could come as early as this weekend.
A government source familiar with the fiscal document said it will contain $2.4 million in annual funding for two existing medical programs, a move that appears aimed at defusing public anger about the provincial government's inability to keep a promise to provide every family in the province with a doctor.
"That will help 50 new family doctors (net) who can practise in the system each year," the source told The Canadian Press.
The funding would create 10 new seats in the family residency program at Dalhousie University and open 10 new spaces in the ready assessment program, which assists international doctors in establishing practices in Nova Scotia.
The government has unleashed a flurry of announcements in the last seven weeks, totalling in the tens of millions of dollars, which has led to speculation about a trip to the polls, which Premier Stephen McNeil has done little to squelch.
McNeil, who has refused to rule out an election before a legislative vote on the budget, stuck to his script on Wednesday.
When asked whether the budget would be a real document without a house vote on the estimates, McNeil was clear.
"The day it is introduced it's considered to be a real budget, even those that have been defeated. This is a real budget. It's a thoughtful plan and it reflects the hard work of Nova Scotians over the last three-and-a-half years."
Last month, Finance Minister Randy Delorey committed to a balanced budget for 2017-18, on the heels of a forecasted surplus of $12.1 million for 2016-17.
But Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie did his best Wednesday to cast doubt on those claims.
Baillie said although the document would be presented as balanced, it likely won't account for certain expenses, such as the coming legal fight over Bill 75, which imposed a contract on the province's 9,300 unionized teachers.
"That exact action in British Columbia cost the taxpayers there hundreds of millions of dollars when the courts finally settled it," said Baillie. "It would be irresponsible to table a budget that doesn't account for the significant legal costs the McNeil government has exposed us all to, but I do think that's what's going to happen."
The Tory leader said he expects the Liberals to table the budget and then dissolve the house to call Nova Scotians to the polls. He said it would be wrong not to subject the budget to its usual scrutiny.
"They don't want Nova Scotians to see what they've done until after an election," he said.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said such a move would be "undemocratic and sneaky."
Burrill also lamented the government's expressed intent to table another balanced budget.
"That fills me with foreboding that the investments that are needed ... are not going to be made," he said.
During a speech last month to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, Delorey revealed the budget would see a rise in the threshold for the small business income tax rate to $500,000 from $350,000. The move would shift more than 1,000 companies into a lower income tax bracket, paying rates of three per cent rather than 16 per cent on their income.