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EDITORIAL: Better than the alternative

Probably a lot of people have got out a winter coat in late fall and, happily, unexpectedly, found a $20 bill in the pocket.

A larger-than-expected surplus in a government budget isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s still welcome, and in many instances it’s money you didn’t realize you had.

Nova Scotia’s government released the figures this week for the 2016-17 fiscal year showing a surplus of $149 million. The Liberals had said earlier in the year that they anticipated being in the black by something more in the range of $40 million.

Differences like that are by no means shocking. Newly minted Finance Minister Karen Casey offered the general explanation that predicting revenues doesn’t always yield precise figures.

People are often skeptical about government finance departments and their forecasts, some suggesting they low-ball the figures to justify higher taxes, or cost-cutting measures. This latest total has some people saying lower expectations helped the Liberals in the tough stance they’ve been taking in negotiations with public employees.

That’s a bit of a stretch. We describe a $20 million or $40 million surplus as razor thin. In the bigger picture, sure, $149 million is better, but it’s not overwhelmingly large in the context of annual budgets in the $11 billion range. That also helps to see how a forecast that’s off by $100 million isn’t really off by a whole lot.

At any rate, such a surplus is a heck of a lot better than the alternative – and any government would rather be criticized for erring on the side of caution in favour of a surplus.

The well-justified criticisms this week are what we should expect: a government having money left over while the province obviously still faces shortcomings in many aspects of health care.

Nova Scotians – along with opposition politicians – do need to continue demanding improvements in those areas. But we also must remember that governments cannot indefinitely continue along a path of structural deficits. They need to have year-to-year spending in line, rather than snowballing into greater overall debt and, with that under control, determine which areas need more funding.

It’s often a slow, arduous process, particularly in a province with modest economic growth, but this set of figures shows the government has made the progress most Nova Scotians expect.

Something else on this subject, however, that taxpayers should keep in mind, and where the Liberals don’t get off so easily – and that is the extra money that suddenly appears during election campaigns. It happened once again last May – to a government that cried poor for three years.

Granted, all the parties do it if they’re in the position to. But it’s inexcusable. It’s also one of those glaring reasons why so many are cynical when governments discuss finances.

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