NEWS
05/11/2017 12:07 EDT | Updated 05/14/2017 09:05 EDT

N.S. Progressive Conservatives release 'optimistic' platform for May 30 vote

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives have released an election platform promising millions in spending commitments along with balanced budgets — an "optimistic" plan the party says will spur economic growth and improve the bottom line for families and businesses.

Flanked by Halifax-area Tory candidates Thursday, Jamie Baillie became the first party leader to officially unveil a platform for the May 30 provincial vote.

"When it comes right down to it, the Progressive Conservative vision is about jobs — good, long-lasting, reliable jobs," Baillie told party supporters.

"We can be a province where government stops reaching deeper into your pocketbooks and starts actually reducing the cost of living for Nova Scotia families."

The spending in the platform document is in addition to a $1 billion, 10-year capital plan announced earlier in the campaign, something Baillie has said would put 10,000 people to work.

Party officials told reporters the platform commitments build on last month's Liberal budget and would avoid deficits, although they weren't entirely specific on what budget items would be reduced to keep the books balanced.

They first told reporters the cost over four years was $648.9 million — but later called to say the actual cost was $168.9 million.

The resulting confusion gave Premier Stephen McNeil an opportunity he was only too glad to seize.

"He (Baillie) clearly said he was going to keep commitments that we put out — some not all — which ones is he not going to keep?" said McNeil. "They don't even know what the numbers are in their own platform and they won't answer the question: Where's the funding coming from?"

Baillie told reporters savings would be found through such measures as trimming administrative waste in the health system and by repealing the Liberal bill that imposed a wage settlement on teachers. He said that would save millions in legal costs through potential legal challenges.

He also said he would find savings by negotiating a better deal to fund the Yarmouth, N.S., to Portland, Maine, ferry.

Baillie added the balanced-books promise wouldn't fall victim to a new Tory government pleading ignorance over the true state of the province's finances.

"I go through the budget every year, I think, in as much detail as anybody. I will tell you this, I will never use that sad old excuse that I didn't know the state of the books after we got in."

Baillie was equally adamant when asked whether jobs or departmental cuts are in the offing, saying "there's been enough cutting."

"Those are actual services like health and education, like mental health that are important to me," he said. "I want to create jobs and that's why our platform stresses job creation. I'm not interested in those kinds of things (cuts)."

Key promises include a plan that would see businesses earn their way to a 10 per cent tax rate through creating jobs, and a pledge to maintain a Liberal promise to raise the basic personal exemption for those earning below $75,000, resulting in a tax cut for 500,000 Nova Scotians.

Baillie also said a Progressive Conservative government would not impose a carbon tax and would freeze the cost share ratio for seniors' pharmacare.

On the education front, he said the Tories would use the $20 million the Liberals set aside for classroom investments to immediately hire more educational assistants and to put hard caps on class size.

The party is also promising a new deal with universities to get tuition back down to the national average.

Meanwhile, the NDP said Thursday it would double the funding for a mental health strategy and cut wait times in half for people who are waiting up to a year to get care.

Leader Gary Burrill made the announcement outside one of Halifax's largest health care centres, saying his party would spend $49.5 million over four years to improve access to community based mental health care.

Of that, $21.5 million would go to a second mental health strategy that picks up where the previous NDP government's left off. Burrill said he would also spend $25 million on three pilot mental health hubs in emergency rooms to speed up access to care and alleviate overcrowded emergencies. Those would be located in Halifax, Kentville and Sydney.

The Liberals spent a second day in Cape Breton Thursday, where McNeil announced a new $8 million fund to revitalize tourism sites.

He said sites would be selected by Tourism Nova Scotia and the government would match funds from businesses and other levels of government.

- With files from Alison Auld in Halifax.