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Friday, April 30, 2010

Convention centre costs: up to $170 million without furnishing and equipment

Hidden price estimates are about twice previously stated amount

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 3:31 PM

Until today, the public discussion about a proposed convention centre in downtown Halifax revolved around a government expenditure of about $100 million. That amount would pay for the public portion of the proposed complex---that is, the convention centre proper. Construction of the adjoining hotel and office complex would be paid for by the private developer, Rank, Inc.

Readers will recall that I've criticized the government for releasing only redacted copies of four reports that analyzed the business case for the convention centre. To his credit, provincial infrastructure minister Bill Estabrooks reversed that decision, and today all four reports were put live on the internet.

Still, while the documents placed on the internet are a vast improvement from the earlier released versions, there were still some redaction. In particular, key clauses in a report compiled by Criterion Communications Inc. were blackened. But, those blackened reports can be read by simply copying them and pasting them into a Word document, which reveals the redacted text as simply text. One passage, in particular, is the "money quote":

Recent experiences in North America suggest a construction cost for a centre incorporating a mix of exhibit, meeting and ballroom spaces in the range of $400 to $500 CDN per sf., depending on the proportion of various spaces with different degrees of finishing. For a 300,000 - 340,000 sf centre this would correspond very roughly to a construction cost in the range of between $120 and $170 million CDN, exclusive of design, furnishings and equipment costs.
There's no indication what the costs of "design, furnishings and equipment" will be, but a safe guestimate would be $30 million, so let's just call it an even $200 million for the public costs of the convention centre---TWICE that previously discussed.

Update, 5pm Friday: After The Coast announced the work-around for the redacted Criterion report, the report has been un-redacted.

Here's a screenshot of the original redaction:

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Community to mark anniversary of Tanya Brooks' murder

Join the march on May 10

Posted By on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 4:36 PM

Readers will recall the murder of Tanya Brooks last year; Brooks was the woman found dead in the window well at St. Patrick's-Alexandra School:
Tanya Brooks was murdered May 10, 2009---both Mother's Day and her daughter Chelsey's 20th birthday. Her body was found the next afternoon by a school staff member. On May 28 Tanya would have turned 37.
Brooks’ mother, Connie Adams, just called to ask me to spread word that this coming May 10 the one-year anniversary of Brooks’ death will be marked with a march in Millbrook. The march stats at 4pm, at the bottom of Gerald Avenue.

With more public attention brought to the still-unsolved murder, says Adams, “maybe someone might break their heart, and say, ‘yea, OK, I did it, and this one did it with me.’”

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Coast exclusive: interview with Louis Reznick

Major Barrington Street owner lays out plans for the Roy, Sam the Record Man and Ginger’s Tavern buildings, and discusses his vision for downtown Halifax.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 27, 2010 at 3:16 PM

As Coast special issues editor and Shoptalk reporter Carsten Knox was preparing for this week’s Shoplocal issue, which will concentrate on Barrington Street, he caught up with property baron Louis Reznick, who owns the Roy Building, the Morris Tea building, the former Sam the Record Man and Ginger’s Tavern buildings, and the buildings housing Freak Lunchbox and Attica. Reznick granted Knox this exclusive interview.

Continue reading »

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Friday, April 23, 2010

How to slash the city budget

Once you ask, it turns out there are hundreds of ways

Posted By on Fri, Apr 23, 2010 at 10:48 AM

As Halifax Council and staff have been looking for ways to meet the upcoming $30 million budget shortfall, hundreds of suggestions have come in--- from staff, from councillors, from the public generally.

City staff has compiled those suggestions, and the full list is now available on the city's web site.

I'm linking to it, because I'd like to see what readers think. So far, at my cursory glance, it appears some of the suggestions are ridiculous, others good ideas, and a great many need more investigation.

I'll have a more in-depth analysis next week, but just wanted to get this out now.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

G8 not great

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 6:28 PM


“Family-friendly” is one term we never hear connected to G8 protests but this year the Halifax-Dartmouth District Labour Council has asked protesters to be safe, not violent. In the past, protests in Canadian cities and around the world have aimed to shut down the meetings, almost at any cost. Not this year, Kyle Buott, president of the labour council, says. “There is no possibility of violence at these protests whatsoever.”

Buott says the group’s goals are to inform the public and to build momentum for the anti-G8 movement. “The leadership of the G8 is responsible for the economic and social policies that have caused the economic crisis that is wrecking the lives of millions of workers around the world,” he says.

Halifax is hosting the Group of Eight (G8) development ministers April 26 to 28 in advance of the June G20 conference in Toronto. However, several local groups say the decisions made at these meetings reinforce the global divide between rich and poor countries. The labour council is mobilizing a “G8 Welcoming Committee” to peacefully object the meetings.

During a Peasants Day event on the Common last week, held in solidarity with the anti-G8 resistance, organizer Aaron Beale encouraged attendees to say “no” to corporate control of food by planting gardens and buying local. Protesters hula-hooped under cloudy skies and munched on free vegetables, pita bread and apple crisp.

Halifax Regional Police spokesperson Brian Palmeter doesn’t expect this weekend’s rallies to be violent. “We’ll be prepared to deal with anything should we be required to, but we hope that people will, if they feel the need to protest, that they’ll come down and do it lawfully,” Palmeter says.

Though this year’s G8 meeting focuses on maternal and child health, the Feminist League for Agitation Propaganda plans to protest the lack of abortion and contraception on the agenda. “We’re critical of the G8’s existence and we’re upset that the agenda of maternal and child health is so narrow,” says member Emily Davidson.

FLAP and others plan to make their voices heard April 25 in Victoria Park at 1:30pm and April 26 in Cornwallis Park at 7am.

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Traffic reporting

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 6:25 PM

The Nova Scotia Human Trafficking Awareness Network held a symposium Monday to increase awareness about human trafficking in Halifax. Members of the network, including the RCMP, Halifax Regional Police, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Red Cross, met in hopes of developing more streamlined guidelines to ensure the health and safety of human trafficking victims.

I’d like to tell you what happened at Monday’s panel discussion, but could only have done so if RCMP communications officials looked over my article first, a condition I refused to meet. After the day-long event, where I self-identified at as a reporter wearing a Coast badge, RCMP told me the event was closed to media.

I caught up with Rene Ross, an audience member at the event, afterward. Ross, the executive director of a local non-profit organization working for the rights and safety of sex workers, worries that key voices were not heard at Monday’s event. She says her organization, Stepping Stone, was never invited to join the Nova Scotia Human Trafficking Awareness Network. “It makes no sense to us that sex workers are not being included in debates about policies and decisions that affect them,” she says.

Ross expresses concern that RCMP and others are painting a one-sided picture about sex work. “It’s not a balanced picture of what’s going on and it’s turning into sensationalistic rhetoric that is being used against sex workers,” she says. While some people are forced into sex work against their will, Ross feels it’s important to recognize that others choose to be sex workers. “What’s really happening in the sex trade is the global migration of women in the sex trade in search of better paid work,” says Ross. She worries criminalizing sex work pushes sex workers further underground, increasing their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big changes on Gottingen Street

MET store will finally get razed as affordable housing organization to build two eight- to 10-storey buildings

Posted By on Tue, Apr 20, 2010 at 2:12 PM


Big changes are in store for Gottingen Street. A new non-profit group dedicated to providing affordable housing is forging ahead with a proposal for two eight- to 10-storey apartment buildings. One is on the site of the former Diamonds bar at the foot of Cunard Street, across Prince William Street from the YMCA; the second is on the site of the much-neglected MET store, Mitchell’s Enviro Treasures, a half-block south of Diamonds, between Alteregos Cafe and the Good Food Emporium.

The Housing Trust of Nova Scotia is a new organization founded by Ross Cantwell, a real estate consultant with Colliers International who has extensive experience in affordable housing agencies. The Housing Trust’s board reads like a Who’s Who of the local development industry: It includes Cantwell, developer Louis Lawen and executives associated with many of the largest property firms in Nova Scotia.

“We’ve got designers, we’ve got guys who build things, we’ve got lawyers, mortgage brokers, the whole bit,” says Cantwell, explaining that he brought together the expertise to build new housing quickly.

To purchase the land, Cantwell’s group took advantage of funding made available through a federal-provincial agreement to create more affordable housing in Nova Scotia, but construction costs will come via a normal mortgage. For that reason, the project will be a mix of below-market and market-priced apartments.

Cantwell says each building will consist of about 100 units, about half of which will be designated “affordable,” which means that residents will spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent, heat and utilities---about $200/month less than the market-priced apartments, depending on circumstance. The Gottingen Street ground level of each building will be retail and commercial space. The exact configuration of the buildings will await architectural renderings. “Right now, we’re interviewing three architects, and we hope to have one selected by next week,” says Cantwell. The goal is to start construction by the end of the year.

One potential stumbling block is that the buildings exceed the 50-foot height limits for Gottingen Street and 40-foot height limits on Maitland Street, the street one block down the hill, running along the rear of the new buildings. Cantwell says that with the 18-foot grade change and the lower height limit on Maitland, any building spanning the block would be “ridiculous looking.” The Housing Trust has asked the city for a variance, and he expects approval.

The councillor for the area, Dawn Sloane, is very supportive of granting that variance. “If it was for condos, I’d have a different feeling,” says Sloane. “But for affordable housing, to help people stay in the neighbourhood, I’m very excited.”

The sale of the Diamonds building was completed March 31 with no problems, says Cantwell.

The dilapidated MET building has been cited for repeated bylaw infractions and had over $300,000 in liens placed on it. Nearby residents have complained that the building houses rats and is generally a blight on the neighbourhood. In recent years several people have attempted to buy the building, but the deals have fallen through as MET owner Wayne Mitchell backed out of the potential sales. Cantwell too says Mitchell was putting up obstacles to an agreed-upon March 31 closing date, but just this morning (Tuesday) HRM reports it has received payment in full on the liens, meaning that the property is now formally in Housing Trust’s hands.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Concert economics

Secrecy is the real issue, but economic arguments still don't wash

Posted By on Thu, Apr 15, 2010 at 5:58 PM

This week, I broke the story revealing that the province spent $600,000 on the Paul McCartney concert. The provincial expenditure is in addition to $150,000 spent by the city of Halifax, and brings the total taxpayer bill to $750,000.

Some readers might read more into my story than I intended. I am not against Common concerts. At least, not necessarily. Truly, even now I'm ambivalent on the issue: if the people of Halifax, or Nova Scotia, decide to collectively spend tax dollars on bringing Paul McCartney, or anyone else, to town, simply because they want to have fun, well, who am I to argue? But, I don't think the people can decide such a thing without first having all the information available to them, and first of all: how much will it cost? Without that bit of info, they'd be making an uninformed decision.

As usual, for me it comes down to secrecy: if a government expenditure is worth making, then it should be defendable in public. But as we've seen, the provincial government decided it didn't want to publicize its $600,000 contribution; I can only conclude that government officials felt it was indefensible.

Regardless, after the fact there have been all sorts of justification and arguments made in favour of the McCartney expenditures. For example, as reported in the Chronicle-Herald:

Harold MacKay, president of Power Promotional, said his company’s analysis shows that the McCartney show generated about $2.8 million in HST revenue and that show, combined with one a week later featuring Kiss, generated about $24 million for local businesses.
Likewise, Liberal MLA Andrew Younger emailed me with a similar argument:
I did some quick math and by my math the province made a profit on McCartney

For example, say 50,000 tickets at $100. I actually think more were sold and at a higher average price but anyhow.

The provincial HST revenue on those tickets is $400,000. That does not include HST revenue on liquor, merchandise, staging/equipment rentals etc.

Thus when all is considered it appears even conservatively the province would have at least broken even.

I would argue that these various arguments are actually a diversionary tactic: they serve to take our eyes of the ball of secret government expenditures---of knowledge kept from the citizenry---and to get bogged down in arguments about HST and the rest. So, I'm tempted not to address them at all.

However, the economic arguments to justify-after-the-fact hit on another bugaboo of mine: bullshit economic impact calculations. So, keeping in mind that the primary issue with the McCartney expenditures is secrecy, not the economics behind them, let's nonetheless tease out those arguments a bit.

Continue reading »

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

UPDATE: NDP climate bill survives vote

C-311 moves to final reading in Commons

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2010 at 8:34 PM

Members of Parliament overrode opposition from the Conservative government today to move the NDP's Climate Change Accountability Act to third and final reading in the House of Commons. The Liberals and Bloc Quebecois sided with the NDP to move the bill into its final stages. The bill, which would require the federal government to abide by stringent targets cutting Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, will be debated one more time before a final vote. If, as seems likely, the Commons passes the measure, it would then move to the Senate.

Bill C-311 would require the government to set targets reducing emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020 and to 80 percent below by 2050. It would also require the federal Minister of the Environment to set an interim emissions reduction target for 2015 within six months after the bill becomes law.

Halifax NDP Member of Parliament, Megan Leslie, said last week that she feared Conservative procedural maneuvers might kill the bill. Today, however, 155 opposition members outvoted 137 Conservatives to move it forward.

The vote was identical to one held minutes earlier to approve a Liberal motion calling on the Harper government to adopt "a national climate change plan that implements economy-wide regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, and invests in renewable energy, clean technology and energy efficiency in order for Canada to compete in the new green economy."

The Liberals also issued a news release criticizing the Harper government's record on environmental issues.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment, criticized the Liberals for their previous support of the NDP Bill C-311. Mark Warawa, the Conservative MP for Langley in British Columbia, told the Commons that Bill C-311 would divert Canada from the harmonized emissions reduction targets shared with the U.S. He said those targets would cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020.

"311 would also isolate Canada economically and throw us back into a deep recession," Warawa added.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Halifax MP calls for help to save climate bill

Posted By on Fri, Apr 9, 2010 at 4:53 PM

Megan Leslie in House of Commons
  • Megan Leslie in the House of Commons

Halifax NDP Member of Parliament, Megan Leslie is calling on Nova Scotians to help save a proposed law that would compel the federal government to make substantial cuts to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Bill C-311 would require the government to set targets reducing emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020 and to 80 percent below by 2050. It would also require the federal Minister of the Environment to set an interim emissions reduction target for 2015 within six months after the bill becomes law. In addition, a federal commissioner would be required to publish a report every two years analyzing the government's progress in meeting its emissions reduction targets.

The Conservatives have opposed the bill, known as theClimate Change Accountability Act, since the NDP first introduced it in 2006. However, in spite of Conservative opposition, the bill passed the Commons in 2008, but did not receive Senate approval before Parliament was dissolved for a federal election. The NDP re-introduced the measure in 2009.

In a surprise move last week, Conservative MPs denied the unanimous consent needed for the bill to move to final debate. On Wednesday, the House will vote on whether the bill should proceed and Leslie fears that in the confusion over the procedural maneuvering, the bill will die.

“They [the Conservatives] don’t want this bill to pass at all because then they’d actually have to meet these targets or, they would have to break them,” she says adding that the Conservatives want to protect the Alberta Tar Sands, the world’s largest energy project.

“They don’t care about reducing our emissions, about reducing the amount of oil that we’re using because to them that’s where the money comes from. It’s about making sure that we can keep the Tar Sands going; it’s about making sure that we can still drive our SUVs.”

Leslie is calling on Nova Scotians who support targeted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to phone or e-mail Liberal MPs to ask them to vote for the bill to move forward. She says the NDP and the Bloc are solidly in favour of Bill C-311, but although the Liberals supported it in the past, their current position isn’t clear. Last fall, the Liberals sided with the Conservatives and voted to delay the bill. The delay meant Canada was not bound by greenhouse gas emissions targets during negotiations at the UN climate change conference last December in Copenhagen.

Meantime, Leslie is also calling for people to get in touch with Conservative MPs, including Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

“Nova Scotia’s in a lot of trouble as far as rising sea levels go and the impacts that’s going to have on our province and I really think our Nova Scotian Conservative MPs need to hear from people that this is of concern to us.”

Environmental groups such as Sierra Club Canada, the Ecology Action Centre and Greenpeace Canada strongly support the climate change bill.

The vote on whether Bill C-311 moves to the final stages in the House of Commons is scheduled for April 14.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bluewashing swordfish?

Environmentalists object to certifying long-line caught swordfish as "sustainable."

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 at 5:50 PM

Grocery fish counters may soon fill up with eco-certified swordfish. The Marine Stewardship Council, an independent certifying body, is assessing the sustainability of the Atlantic surface longline swordfish fishery. But the Ecology Action Centre, The David Suzuki Foundation and Green Peace consider the potential eco-certification of the longline swordfish fishery a form of eco-fraud.

Shannon Arnold, the Ecology Action Centre's marine coordinator, feels the fishery, which has fleets based in Sambro, shouldn't pass the minimum criterea for eco-certification. "The surface long-line fishery is actually the worst fishery in Canada for wastefulness," says Arnold. The David Suzuki Foundation reports that for every 100 kg of marketable animals such as swordfish caught, longline fishers tossed 71 kg of non-marketable species overboard. The bycatch includes endangered or threatened marine animals such as porbeagle, shortfin mako and blue sharks and loggerhead turtles.

In contrast, the harpoon swordfish fishery has a negligible bycatch, but the Department of Fisheries and Oceans gives 90 per cent of the swordfish quota to longliners and only 10 percent to harpoon fishers. It's a ratio the Department says is based mostly on catch history. But the disparity creates a contentious relationship between the 77 licensed longline fishers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and the 188 licensed harpooners. Opponents to the eco-certification of the longline fishery are lobbying the Department to increase the harpooners' quota.

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Surge protection

The January storm highlights need for Halifax's coastal protection plans

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 at 5:39 PM

A fish store in Herring Cove fell victim to the January storm. - ROY P. DEMPSEY
  • A fish store in Herring Cove fell victim to the January storm.
  • Roy P. Dempsey

The wet winter story that hit Nova Scotia on January 2, killing two people and causing millions of dollars in property damage, gave a particularly hard punch to the local coastal communities of Herring Cove, Eastern Passage and Cow Bay. In many residents' opinion the storm was a visible product of climate change, enough so that Halifax councillors asked for a report examining the connection.

But, "it may be inappropriate to label this storm surge devastation as a Climate Change event," writes Richard MacLellan, the city's sustainability officer, in the report. "On January 2, a relatively "normal" storm in conjunction with an astronomical tide collectively resulted in an extreme weather event. In isolation, either of those occurrences would not have made a significant impact to the community---it was the combination that caused the devastation."

Still, the storm gave MacLellan an excuse to review HRM's laudable climate change adaptation measures, which deal particularly well with sea level rise and storm surges. The report, found at, is a worthy read.

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Coast writers recognized

Matt Aikins, Sue Carter Flinn, Stephen Kimber and Tim Bousquet are finalists for the 2010 Atlantic Journalism Awards

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 at 5:27 PM

Being part of Team Coast means being surrounded by some of the most creative and talented people I know. It means being united in the cause of covering the hell out of Halifax, and knowing that although work can get stressful, at least it's never boring. Can it get any better?

Actually, it just did. Nominations were announced this week for the Atlantic Journalism Awards, and I'm thrilled to say The Coast earned five nods across four categories. While serving our readers will always be more important than awards, getting nominated is a welcome thrill. (We've been shut out of AJAs and other awards plenty of years, so I speak with some authority here.)

The nominated stories and journalists are: Matthieu Aikins in the Enterprise Reporting category for "Unembedded in Afghanistan" (October 1, 2009); Tim Bousquet in the Continuing Coverage category for several articles about the broken sewage treatment plant; Tim Bousquet (again) in the Feature Writing Category for "Doolittle, Darwin and the deeply dumb" (October 8); Stephen Kimber, also in Feature Writing, for "Who is premier Darrell Dexter?" (June 4); and Sue Carter Flinn in the Arts & Entertainment Reporting category for "On the laugh track" (December 17).

The awards will be given out May 8 at a ceremony in Halfax. For the full list of nominees in print, TV and radio categories, go to I also encourage you to read our five nominated stories at They are outstanding, and you don't have to take my word for it.

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Ferry frisking

New federal security measures placed on Halifax-Dartmouth ferry include the right to search passengers

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 at 5:15 PM

Take the ferry in Halifax and you agree to be searched.

New federal security measures, which took effect April 1, permit passenger searches, require proof of purchase for passengers and add more security cameras and officers in terminals and on ferries. The changes are part of Transport Canada's Domestic Ferry Regulations.

Despite the new regulations Lori Patterson, spokesperson for Metro Transit, says the measures should have a minimal effect on passengers.

"They (passengers) will see more decals posted around ferry terminals in terms of entering that facility. It is a secure facility and it means their consent, that they could be searched. So that's what they'll notice," she says. "But on a day-to-day basis there wouldn't be much difference except the requirement of proof of purchase in the waiting area."

The new measures cost roughly $500,000 to implement. Primary funding was provided through a $393,000 grant from Transport Canada's Marine Security Contribution program with HRM responsible for the remaining 25 percent.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

NDP hikes HST to 15%

Steele says big spending cuts needed to slay deficit

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2010 at 6:16 PM

Graham Steele answers questions at budget news conference
  • Graham Steele answers questions at budget news conference

Nova Scotia’s finance minister strode to the lectern to begin his budget news conference at Province House today and fished out a pair of children’s running shoes. Bathed in the glare of flashbulbs, Graham Steele explained that the NDP government was eliminating the provincial portion of the sales tax on children’s shoes and clothing as well as on diapers and women’s menstrual products.

The photo-op appeared to be designed to soften the news that effective July 1st, the province will raise the HST on most other things by two points to 15 percent, the highest combined sales tax in the country. The increase will cost the average Nova Scotia family an extra $529 a year and will generate $215 million for the provincial treasury this year and $300 million per year after that. However, the province will be returning $53 million this year and $70 million next year, mainly to families with incomes under $30,000. The sales tax rebate will be worth about $240 per household plus $57 per dependent child.

“The one hand taketh, the other returneth” was characteristic of at least one other tax change in Steele’s first major budget. Starting on January 1st, Nova Scotians earning more than $150,000 will be taxed at a marginal rate of 21 percent, up from the current top provincial rate of 17.5 percent. The tax will raise $59 million in the coming year, but will be eliminated once the budget is balanced. On the other hand, the province is suspending its high-income surtax on annual incomes over about $83,000 saving 30,000 better-off Nova Scotians a total of $27 million in personal income taxes.

There will also be income tax reductions for low-income pensioners, small businesses and large corporations while 15,000 welfare recipients will quality for a $200 annual poverty reduction credit.

Spending cuts needed to balance books

Steele insists that although his tax increases will help slay the deficit, most of the money needed for balancing the budget over the next four years will come from $772 million in spending cuts. He acknowledges though that it will be tough to cut high cost, “big-ticket items” such as health and education partly because much of the money is spent by outside agencies. (In fact, more than 60 percent of provincial spending involves payments to bodies such as municipalities, health authorities, universities and school boards.)

“The simple fact is these are not things you can snap your fingers and do overnight,” Steele said referring to the problems inherent in controlling spending. “We’ve got to sit down with our partners and say, ‘we’ve got to do this better.’” One of his budget documents suggests that ways of reducing health care costs, for example, could include investigating “shared efficiencies” among health authorities; “streamlining health-care services” and reducing drug costs.

Both opposition leaders suggested that the NDP budget relied too heavily on specific tax increases while being vague about spending reductions.

Liberal leader Stephen McNeil criticized the government for not reining in spending. “This government is talking about tough decisions lying ahead,” McNeil said. "Quite frankly, they picked the easy one, and that was raising taxes.”

Conservative leader Karen Casey suggested that raising sales taxes on the one hand, while refunding the tax to poorer families on the other, made little sense. “I can’t support an HST increase at the expense of Nova Scotians,” she added.

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