Finance minister brings Back to Balance hearings to town
Finance Minister Graham Steele looks on as Springhill resident Frank Likely talks with facilitator Becky Colwell during the ministers Back to Balance tour stop in Amherst last night. Darrell Cole Amherst Daily News
AMHERST - Graham Steele is not going to turn a deaf ear to taxation concerns raised in Amherst and Cumberland County.
The finance minister took his Back to Balance tour to Amherst last night, the 14th of 18 stops in the province, and heard loud and clear worries people have hear about a proposed two per cent hike in the HST.
"We're very conscious of the border issues and I want to make sure we have the right information. If there's issues that can be dealt with, we'll deal with them," the minister said.
"The cross-border issue has been going on for a long time and it's not any one item. I'm not about to say we can change the tide on cross-border shopping, but what I can say is we're going to try awfully hard not to make it worse."
During the meeting, attended by more than 100 people, the minister asked for a show of hands with two-thirds of those in attendance indicating they are against increasing the HST.
Steele said that goes against what he's hearing in the rest of the province, but added he understands how complex the issue is here.
Following a number of group discussions, several suggestions were made on how to balance the budget with streamlining government operations and reducing the number of school boards, health boards and municipal units among the most popular.
Others suggested increasing personal income tax instead of the HST while reducing the number of universities and rationalizing the post-secondary system was another popular suggestion. It was also suggested the province place tolls on all the 100-series highways to fund maintenance and construction.
Among the things Steele has heard from Nova Scotians is a general acceptance that the deficit problem can't be solved in a year or two while he has also heard most are in favour of an increase in the HST.
"People understand it wouldn't be advisable to bring things back to balance too quickly, but they also understand you can't run deficits forever," he said. "A consensus is emerging that three to five years is about the right time frame for coming back to balance."
Another show of hands indicated most at last night's meeting feel balancing the budget is something that should be accomplished within five years, although there were several who feel it's a 10 or 20-year commitment.
Steele said the province is on an unsustainable economic path and if nothing changes Nova Scotians could ultimately end up paying a very high price.
"We're in for some very big deficits that weakens the government," Steele said. "The thing is there is not just one path forward. That's what I want to hear from Nova Scotians - what path is most acceptable or least objectionable to them."
The minister said the format used to gather input and the response from those who have participated has been very positive. The tour is more than most can remember being done and the turnout at every session has been very strong.
"People are very engaged in the process," he said. "People want to take part in moving forward."
Steele said it's important the province act on its debt because the longer it puts the issue on the backburner the less chance it will have to deal with a budget item that at $1 billion is only surpassed by health and education.
"It's slowly and steadily going to crowd out everything else. If I run deficits every year the choices we have as a province would run out in 10 or 20 years," Steele said. "We should not expect our children to make decisions we are not prepared to make ourselves."