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Nova Scotia election: party leaders spar over timeline to reach balanced budget

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Liberal leader pitched himself as a deficit slayer before a business audience on Wednesday, contrasting his budget balance goals with the spending plans of his Progressive Conservative opponent.
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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Liberal leader pitched himself as a deficit slayer before a business audience on Wednesday, contrasting his budget balance goals with the spending plans of his Progressive Conservative opponent.

The differing spending strategies were on display as the two party leaders, along with the head of the province's NDP, responded to questions posed by members of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and debated each other. 

"We need to make sure that we are living within our means," Liberal Leader Iain Rankin told the business crowd. "The spending that is proposed by both opposition parties is in the billions — adding structural deficits that we cannot incur right now." 

Tory Leader Tim Houston has presented a costed platform that projects $553 million in new spending in Year 1 if he's elected, with about 80 per cent of that dedicated to health care. 

Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill told the chamber they planned to run deficits to address needs in health care, housing and long-term care. 

In contrast, Rankin spoke of targeted spending to ensure the province can get back to balanced budgets over the next four years. The Liberal leader insisted that a more measured approach to spending would help preserve core government services and prevent future tax increases. 

"This government has clearly shown that we will keep taxes low," he said. "When we got back to (budget) balance four times we reduced taxes for small businesses, we reduced taxes for income tax." 

But Houston said big spending is needed to address challenges, particularly in the health-care sector, in which he proposes to invest an additional $430 million. "We need to be up front and honest," he said. "Big spending is required to fix health care after eight years of neglect." 

The Tory leader said that even with his new proposed spending, his plan would return the province's ledger to balance within six years. 

Houston highlighted his party's $140-million program that would allow companies to pay lower taxes if they put more money toward workers' salaries. 

"That's a very specific government policy that will put more money into the hands of those working families that are struggling to pay for groceries, struggling for housing," he said. 

Meanwhile, Burrill said the NDP — which held only five seats at the legislature's dissolution — said deficit spending is required during a time when the economy is trying to recover from one of its biggest contractions in recent history. 

Burrill also said a $70-million tax break given to the province's larger corporations that took effect just prior to the pandemic effectively prevented the government from helping small businesses in a meaningful way during the lockdowns. 

He warned that if the Liberals win the Aug. 17 election, they will likely cut hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending in order to achieve balanced budgets. The Liberals, Burrill added, balanced budgets during their prior mandate by cutting a film tax credit and rural economic development programs. 

The NDP leader also pointed out that most jurisdictions in Canada are not planning to return to balanced budgets for the next six to eight years.

Later in the day, the Liberals, who had been revealing their campaign planks in separate announcements, released their entire platform, estimating the cost of their promises at $454.7 million over four years, including $93.2 million in Year 1.

About $127 million is committed to health care, $77.8 million to skills and job training and $183 million toward economic and business initiatives.

"It is a plan that sets this province on a clear course to recover from the pandemic," Rankin told reporters.

The Liberal leader presented four new proposals in the platform, including a $30-million, 10-year funding commitment for the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship in Dartmouth, N.S., which is dedicated to researching new technologies for the ocean. 

Rankin promised $6 million for the cultural sector, including for a new $3-million "content creator fund" to help boost local talent. The Liberal leader also pledged to create a new cabinet position: minister of digital government, responsible for overseeing initiatives in the digital economy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021. 

The Canadian Press

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