The Gallant Liberals are continuing a public-relations blitz to get their "Choices" report back into the spotlight, an effort one anti-tax group says is designed to lead straight to an HST increase.
The Liberals have issued four press releases since Jan. 1 rehashing or elaborating on some of the ideas in the report released last November.
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The document lays out a wide range of options to cut spending or raise taxes to eliminate a so-called "structural deficit," a long-term pattern of shortfalls the Liberals peg at $500 to $600 million.
The stark options for cutting include hospital closures and teacher layoffs, while among the seemingly toxic revenue options are imposing highway tolls and boosting the Harmonized Sales Tax to 15 per cent, an increase of two percentage points.
The Liberals were frustrated during question period in the legislature in December when the Progressive Conservative Opposition all but ignored those options, focusing instead on the six-year-old Atcon scandal and other issues.
"Only five questions out of 130 were posed on the Choices report," cabinet minister Donald Arseneault complained on the day the legislature adjourned for Christmas.
In a year-end interview with CBC News, Premier Brian Gallant acknowledged many members of the public may not have tuned into the contents of the report.
"There lies the challenge," he said.
"New Brunswickers are all very busy … so being able to see what's happening in Fredericton is not always a priority for families across the province and we recognize that."
That may explain why the Liberals have put out four press releases already in 2016 touching on the recommendations: an opinion piece by minister Victor Boudreau; an announcement of the already-known Feb. 2 date for the budget; and two releases elaborating on options in the report have all been posted.
'Hard medicine' coming
Kevin Lacey, the Atlantic Canada director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says it's all designed to prepare public opinion for an HST increase, the subject of Thursday's re-announcement.
"The government is setting us up for some hard medicine in the budget and the biggest one of those will be the HST increase," he said.
"They're telegraphing what's likely to be in the budget Feb. 2, and they're gauging public opinion."
After saying when the report was released that there would be no public consultations, the Liberals announced a series of 10 public meetings starting Jan. 11 and running to Jan. 21.
Some of them will happen in communities such as St. Stephen and Caraquet, where there's been speculation about the future of small hospitals.
But Lacey says given the final session takes place just 12 days before the budget, it's more likely the sessions are a public-relations exercise.
"These budgets requires months of work within the government and months of communications," he said.
"It's not reasonable to believe that major decisions will either be made or put off as a result of consultations that are just days before the budget."