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Too much money going to Nova Star ferry in Yarmouth: Stephen McNeil

HALIFAX – Taxpayer handouts to the Nova Star ferry that connects Yarmouth, N.S. to Portland, Maine are still too high, according to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.

In an interview on Global’s The Morning News program on Thursday, McNeil said he would like to see smaller amounts given to the ferry service. The province has committed $13 million to the Nova Star for the 2015 ferry season.

“Every ferry service that we know of is subsidized to some level, we subsidize this one too much and we’ll continue to work to lower it,” said McNeil.

The ferry, which has some of the same amenities as a luxury cruise ship, was introduced for last summer. In its inaugural year, the service was plagued by low ridership and runaway costs.

The Nova Scotia government originally committed $21 million to the service over a seven-year period. Instead, the money was spent in the first few months and another $7.5 million was given to the service during its first year of operations.

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McNeil said the government put more money into the service last year than it wanted to, but he said the province still wants to see the service operating.

“We felt it was important that we connected it — it’s an international link,” he said. “We have now been able to reduce the amount that we believe will go in this year. It’s still too high we’re going to actually be working to lower it.”

WATCH: Budget, public sector wages key priorities for government

In the wide-ranging interview, McNeil also reiterated his government’s talking points on the need to balance the province’s books, promote private-sector economic growth and rein in public sector wages.

McNeil and Finance Minister Diana Whalen have both said in recent days the wage increases negotiated for civil servants in the past are not sustainable, and the government won’t sign any contracts the premier said could hurt the province’s finances. However, he wouldn’t put any hard numbers on what he thinks constitutes a fair wage increase.

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“We’re also entering what is going to be very tough negotiations on the labour side,” said McNeil. Contracts in health care, education and other public service departments all expire this year.

“Everyone is going to have to be part of getting us back to fiscal health, which means all of us are going to have to make sure that what we’re asking for the government has the ability to pay,” he said. “Otherwise I’ve made the commitment that I will not be signing contracts that we as the taxpayers of Nova Scotia can’t afford to pay.”

WATCH: PC Leader Jamie Baillie says the economy will be top of mind this spring

In an interview on The Morning News on Wednesday, Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said as Opposition Leader, his most important job is to “represent the voice of Nova Scotians to their government.”

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He said jobs and the economy will be his top priorities when the legislature opens on Thursday.

“I want to look very carefully at the budget to see what’s in there that’s going to help get our economy going and stimulate jobs and what might hurt that effort,” he said.

“Because after all, for all the health and education services that we deserve, it is a growing economy that is the best way to pay for them.”

Baillie said the government has to try new initiatives to see what will light a fire in the provincial economy. He said it’s the reason he opposed a moratorium on fracking that was introduced by the Liberals.

“It’s controversial, but it is one of the new ways of creating jobs and I think we have to give things like that a try,” he said.

Baillie added that cutting red tape for small and medium-sized businesses is another way to help grow the economy. However, he said there are some areas where more money needs to be invested, notably mental health services.

“We have to find ways even in tough financial times, to help families that are struggling with a family member who is suffering from mental illness.”

Baillie said he has heard from Nova Scotians that mental health services is an issue, and his own family’s experiences have also highlighted the issue.

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“My dad has had a rough year and my mom is looking after him,” he said. “It is really hard on her, my sister and I, we do all we can to try and help them out but it’s not easy. It’s not easy for him, but particularly for my mother who has to deal with a spouse that is in decline.”

WATCH: Interim NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald says health care is her party’s top priority

Maureen MacDonald, interim leader of the provincial New Democrats, said her party’s priority during the spring sitting will be health care in Nova Scotia. During her interview on The Morning News, she said the NDP is “very concerned about the way the health care system has been performing under this government.”

“Wait times have grown in home care, in long-term care. We see critical-care units over at the infirmary closed, beds closed. Nurses from out of province having to be brought in. Record number of nurses having resigned or retired,” she said. “These are troubling, troubling signs of a health care system that’s not functioning as it needs to be. And patient care suffers when that happens.”

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MacDonald also said her party is concerned about elements of a tax review the government received last fall.

“We see…the recommendations of that review looking at tax breaks for the people who are better off and more taxation for people in the middle income groups and at the lower end. It’s very concerning.”

In a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Whalen said the government will outline in its upcoming budget what recommendations in the tax review to implement and how to roll out the changes.

The province’s relationship with the federal government is also a concern, said MacDonald.

“The current federal government has pretty much abandoned the region in terms of a forward looking economic development agenda,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis placed on development in the western provinces, particularly around oil. Its had some benefit to our region in that many people from here go and work in the oil fields, but with the dropping prices of oil, it’s troublesome to think about where our economy both provincially and federally might land.”

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