The Gallant government says it hasn't been scared off big cuts to government spending and it's vowing that next week's budget will include some serious slashing.
After sending out earlier signals that health and education won't suffer major cuts, Liberal cabinet minister Victor Boudreau is saying the budget will still be a tough one.
Boudreau made the comments at the latest in a long series of news conferences devoted to the strategic program review process, an attempt to find $500 million in cuts and revenue to break a long-term pattern of budget deficits.
Last week, Boudreau said the health-care and education systems would not see "major cuts or major changes" such as hospital closures because it's clear the public doesn't want them.
But now he says health and education won't escape some level of cost-cutting, either.
"Our health and education and early childhood systems aren't perfect the way they are now," he said.
"We can still find efficiencies and savings."
Boudreau also bristled at suggestions the Liberals were too frightened to make major cuts.
"There's a lot more than needs to be found in the second budget," he said.
"I do think you're going to see something that, at the end of the day, is going to address the fiscal challenges we face as a province."
He said some of the proposed cuts will be those in the Choices report, which was released in November, that the Liberals have chosen not to highlight in their stream of media events.
Trial balloons being floated
Government press releases in the last month have repeatedly mentioned six options from the Choices report: civil service cuts, a sales tax increase, highway tolls, a corporate income tax increase and cuts to health and education.
But Tuesday, Boudreau said despite drawing attention repeatedly to those choices, the Liberals will implement some of the others, which they've given less publicity.
"We focused a lot, I know, on the six bigger ticket items in the report," Boudreau said.
"But there were 32 choices in the report, and there are others outside of those six that certainly will be part of the budget."
Those other options in the report include merging government call centres, merging hospital laboratories, closing tourist information centres, privatizing school custodial services, merging local governments, and privatizing highway maintenance.
The Liberals say the two most popular cost-cutting ideas from New Brunswickers at public consultation sessions have been "reshaping" the civil service and finding "administrative efficiencies."
But previous governments, including the PC administration of former premier David Alward, have made the same promises and the reshaping and efficiencies haven't been enough to balance the books.
Boudreau says the Liberals can find more savings that way, despite their claims they've already saved $115 million in their first budget by trimming waste and merging departments.
Decisions over highway tolls
Transportation Minister Roger Melanson said at the same conference that New Brunswickers at public consultations who support highway tolls seem to prefer the border-toll option set out by the government last week.
The model that would see toll booths placed at the four four-lane-highway entrances to the province at Aulac, Edmundston, St. Stephen, and Woodstock "seemed to be getting a bit more support."
Boudreau added that it's an example of many New Brunswickers supporting tolls as long as they didn't have to pay them themselves.
Melanson says border tolls are a "complex" option because they could be considered a barrier to open trade that violates inter-provincial and international agreements on the free flow of trade.
And it would require agreements with other governments so that New Brunswick could recoup unpaid tolls from out-of-province drivers.
It's also the least lucrative option, with revenue estimated at $43 million compared to $60 million for the other two toll models, booths on the eight busiest four-lane roads, or around the three largest cities.