By Clare Mellor

Six hundred and fifteen thousand.

That’s how many hours Nova Scotia businesses collectively spend each year just filling out provincial government documents and forms.

“It is a stinking, huge number,” said Leanne Hachey of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents small and medium-sized businesses in the province. The figure was made public for the first time in the provincial budget Friday.

“They’ve actually measured it. . . . That’s the equivalent of 70 years businesses as a group spend in one year filling out paperwork,” said Ms. Hachey, Atlantic vice-president of the federation, which has been active in pushing for an end to government red tape.

“The fact that they measured it is fantastic. Now next year we are going to make sure that that number goes down.”

The government has promised to cut down on red tape for businesses by 20 per cent over the next five years. Some representatives of Nova Scotia businesses called Friday’s budget disappointing. Ms. Hachey, who gave the budget a C, described it as leaving the province “stuck in neutral.”

“That is what is going on. The past few years we were moving slowly in the right direction. This year that progress stopped. It could have been a lot worse, given what has gone on in New Brunswick, but it certainly could have been a lot better,” she told reporters after the release of the budget.

In the area of economic development, the government announced an additional $750,000 to market Nova Scotia as an international gateway. The province’s contribution to market the Atlantic Gateway now stands at $1 million. The concept, similar to what has been developed on the West Coast, would be to make this region the entry and exit point for cargo being shipped to and from North America. Nova Scotia’s ports are North America’s closest mainland links to Europe, India and Southeast Asia, via the Suez Canal. Ottawa just announced a $2.1-billion fund in its budget that is available for gateways and border crossings.

Provincially, the government also announced $750,000 to revive its Winter Works program. The economic development program will offer a wage subsidy to businesses and organizations that hire people in rural communities with high unemployment levels. And the provincial student summer employment program got an $800,000 boost, bringing the total program amount to $2.3 million.

The budget also continues with government measures to cut the Large Corporations Tax and create a more competitive business environment. The current rate is 0.25 per cent of taxable capital of more than $10 million and 0.55 per cent of taxable capital between $5 million and $10 million. The rate will decline 0.025 percentage point in July 2007 and July 2008, with a plan by government to eliminate the tax by 2012.

The province also announced a digital media tax credit, coming into effect in 2008, that gives businesses involved in digital medial productions such as video-game makers and film animators a 35 per cent tax credit on their expenses.

The province will also reimburse the provincial portion of HST to tour operators bringing international visitors and conventions to Nova Scotia. This will run parallel to Ottawa’s plan to rebate the federal GST for certain foreign convention and tour operators.

A $3.6-million investment was also announced for an apprenticeship training program.

“That’s good news,” said Nancy Conrad, senior vice-president of policy for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Conrad also praised the government’s commitment to debt reduction. But she raised concerns over spending, which grew 6.5 per cent over last year’s level, and pointed out that at the same time the economy is only expected to grow 2.3 per cent. She and other business representatives also expressed specific concerns about health spending, which is eating up roughly half of the budget. And she said the budget is “pretty light on incentives for business.”

Ian Munro of the Atlantic Institute on Market Studies said he wished the province had shown more restraint when it came to spending.

“That would have allowed for the tax decreases, which would have made the province more competitive, or allow for even further debt reduction to get those interest payments down to free up more money down the road,” he told reporters.

Another concern is that the budget also increases the cost of operating licences and fees for many business owners. Some firms that will see a hike in fees are cemetery and funeral home owners, mortgage brokers and auto dealers.

With Amy Smith, provincial reporter.