09/11/2013 09:19 EDT | Updated 11/11/2013 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia Liberals and Tories set themselves apart on harmonized sales tax cut

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's opposition parties have set themselves apart on the harmonized sales tax, with the Liberals saying they would try to reduce it depending on revenue flow while the Tories are promising to do so unconditionally.

The parties released duelling election platforms Wednesday, nearly one full week into the Oct. 8 campaign.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said he would only cut the HST if the province reaches surpluses that would make up for the lost revenue, meaning each percentage point cut in the tax would require $190 million in the black. McNeil said he would amend if necessary a law the NDP government passed that requires one percentage point cuts to the HST in 2014 and 2015. The tax stands at 15 per cent.

"Our plan is very reasonable," McNeil said at a community centre in Halifax. "It's prudent."

Last month, the government said it was projecting a surplus of $18.3 million for this fiscal year. McNeil doubts the forecast and said he would conduct an audit of the province's finances if he were to win the election.

The Liberal platform promises measures the party estimates will cost $46.7 million annually over three years. The commitments include no increases to personal and corporate taxes, a promise to restore $65 million McNeil says the NDP have cut from Education, and a classroom cap of 20 students for Primary to Grade 2 classes and a cap of 25 students for Grades 3 to 6.

McNeil said his party would also reduce departmental spending except for Health and Education by one per cent annually, a cut he says would save Nova Scotia $28 million over three years. He is also promising to slash the number of health boards from 10 to two in a move he estimates would result in $13 million in savings.

"We do not see that there will be any layoffs in the public service other than the things that happen through natural attrition," he said.

The Progressive Conservatives are also promising to rein in public sector spending. The party, which released their platform earlier in the day, says it would reduce the size of the civil service by 10 per cent and cut the number of health boards to three.

The document also promises to reduce the HST to 13 per cent regardless of the province's fiscal health, though Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said he would balance the books for the next four years.

Baillie also said a Conservative government would freeze electricity rates for five years.

"No more hikes, no more electric shock when you open your power bills every January," he told a news conference in Halifax.

The Liberals have suggested Baillie's plan won't work in the long run because consumers and businesses will be hit with a big bill for deferred utility costs once the freeze is removed. But Baillie disputed that Wednesday, saying the rising costs faced by Nova Scotia Power to meet renewable energy goals would drop because the Conservatives would delay the deadline for those targets.

Baillie said his party's commitments would save Nova Scotia $200 million annually. He also committed to implementing a moratorium on rural school closures and setting aside money for clinical trials of so-called liberation therapy for multiple sclerosis.

They estimate their new program spending would cost $47.8 million in their first full year in office and rise to $62.5 million by the fourth year.

Though both opposition parties are promising to cut the number of health boards, NDP Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald took specific aim at the Liberals.

MacDonald, a former health minister, said amalgamating health districts would result in a major disruption to frontline health care.

"You spend a lot of money on severance packages and on taking a system apart instead of improving a system," she said. "You concentrate decision-making away from the places to where services are delivered to a central location."

The NDP released their platform Friday, a day before the election was called.

In it, the party outlines seven broad commitments that they say would not cost the province more than $34.4 million annually. Those measures including making things like car seats and strollers exempt from the HST and maintaining a balanced budget.