The national budget was debated inside the National Assembly on Independence Hill, Belmopan, today, Thursday, March 24, and that debate is slated to continue into tomorrow, Friday, March 25. Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow presented the proposed budget, with $953 million in total payouts, on Friday, March 11, 2011, and first thing this morning, Leader of Opposition People’s United Party, Johnny Briceño, area representative for Orange Walk Central, took his aim at Barrow’s third budget, calling it “an empty-pot budget.”

Minister of Public Service and area representative for Belmopan, John Saldivar, was the first member of the ruling United Democratic Party to respond to the Opposition’s criticisms on the proposed budget, saying “They had 10 round years to do everything that he [Briceño] was talking about this morning.”

Briceño criticized Barrow’s budget as one that has “no hope,” “no plan” to lift this nation out of crisis, and one which made “no boast” on the previously announced “stimulus package.”

“Sadly, this budget will be mourned for all time as an empty-pot budget,” Briceño commented.

The Leader of the Opposition said that the UDP administration has failed to realize the 21 pledges to the Belizean people made in its 2008 pre-election manifesto. That manifesto promised 5,000 new jobs in tourism; instead, unemployment almost doubled, he said. “Where are the first 1,000 [jobs] of those promised?” Briceño questioned.

“Miss Good [the widow of ex-military veteran Charlie Good] wants back her job, so does Fada [Phillip] Henry [former CitCo employee] and the thousands of Belizeans that have been fired and let go,” said Briceño.

The UDP promised cheaper utilities; instead, bills have gotten higher with the increase in the General Sales Tax last year, the Leader of Opposition added.

“We were told the UDP had a 360 degree approach to crime. Belize, and especially Belize City, is one of the most violent places on the planet,” Briceño went on.

When Belizeans look at this year’s budget, what they see is the same tired laundry list recited for new consumption, said Briceño, adding that there is nothing in the budget to ease the pain endured over the last three years.

The Opposition continues to heavily criticize the Barrow administration for freezing the rollout of the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme.

“Where is the rollout of NHI in Corozal, the second poorest district in our country?” Briceño asked.

Whereas Prime Minister Barrow, at the presentation of the budget 2 weeks ago, spoke of continuing to make “impregnable the ramparts guarding the poor and the marginalized,” Briceño said, “here is the impregnable truth:”

“On feeding the poor: Barrow promised last year that they would have spent $1 million on the food pantry program. All he spent was a shameful $10,000” said Briceño.

On the apprenticeship program: $1 million was promised, but “only a meager $50,000 was actually spent,” he said.

On the conditional cash transfer for the poor: $4 million was promised but “the poor got a stingy $30,000,” Briceño went on.

The total spending on programs for the poor amounts to 5 cents for each man, woman and child, said Briceño. “Five cents can’t even buy a sweet. Shame!” he said.

In his budget presentation, the Prime Minister did not report on the unemployment rate. Briceño said that figure is now “a state secret.”

Briceño noted that Barrow’s last budget promised recovery based on four pillars: social investment, job creation, access to credit and combating crime.

Since January 2010, there have been 145 murders in Belize. “Belizeans agree that the Prime Minister’s four pillars of recovery have actually turned out to be four soft toothpicks,” Briceño said.

Turning to the new budget, which includes a projection for $789.3 million in revenues, Briceño questioned where the additional $50 million budgeted is going to come from.

The government will squeeze out more money from fuel from the poor people of this country, he said.

“The Prime Minister said to the public that he will not be increasing new taxes. He did that less than 2 days before budget started,” said Briceño, referring to the increase in import duties on fuel on Tuesday, which pushed pump prices past $11.

(This increase in import duty, which Barrow had explained at the reading of his budget, followed the elimination of the General Sales Tax on March 11, 2011, making fuel taxes fixed and not variable with external costs going forward. Barrow said the government was sacrificing a million dollars in revenue.)

Barrow is taking the Belizean people for “cunu munu,” Briceño alleged, adding that Barrow’s budget for this new fiscal year is “All glitter and no substance.”

Things got hot in the House of Representatives shortly after 11:00 a.m., when Briceño was touching on the issue of petroleum, and accusing Prime Minister Barrow of having a problem with math.

Barrow would have Belizeans believe we will now cash in on the windfall tax, said Briceño. He noted, however, that in 2008, when the Barrow administration signed into effect Statutory Instrument #12 to introduce the windfall tax surcharge, it allowed for BNE or any oil company to claim what they pay in windfall taxes as an expense against income tax.

It means that for every dollar Belize Natural Energy (BNE) pays to the government in windfall tax, the company will be putting that as part of its expenses; the effect, he said, is that BNE pays 30%—not the 50% Barrow was boasting about.

The experts from Commonwealth and Trinidad & Tobago, who came to Belize to assist, had advised the government to set at US$60 a barrel trigger, as opposed to US$90 and to not include the tax as an expense. BNE themselves said they would have been profitable at US$35 a barrel, Briceño said.

In 2010 alone, we would have been able to collect an additional $28 million, he added, saying that these moniescould have been used to give Belizeans a real break when they go to fill up at the pumps.

There was a debate inside the debate over what latitude Briceño would be allowed in speaking Spanish in the House. Prime Minister Barrow said that while he has no issue with Briceño making brief comments in Spanish, those comments should be limited, because English is the official language of Parliament, and there are members of the House who would not understand what he is saying and would not be able to respond adequately to those comments. The Speaker of the National Assembly concurred with Barrow’s request.

As the debate continued, members of the floor soon after lost decorum with discourteous exchanges, including what one member of the House described as “unparliamentary language.”

Minutes later, while Saldivar was making his statement on the budget, chaos descended in the House of Representatives, as supporters of the two political parties, who were seated in the upstairs gallery, got into a confrontation when a UDP supporter confronted a PUP supporter during a quarrel in the gallery, and the police had to intervene.

The Speaker of the National Assembly suspended the meeting for roughly 10 minutes until order was restored and some political supporters were cleared from the gallery.

During the course of today’s budget debate, it was noted that at least three members of the 6 representing the Opposition were absent from the House: Freetown area representative Francis Fonseca, Lake I area representative Cordel Hyde and Albert area representative Mark Espat.

“I know for sure that the member for Albert and Lake I find their leader to be very uninspiring; otherwise, they would have made their presence here,” said Saldivar.

Whereas Briceño expressed the view that the 2.4% Barrow reported for Belize’s economy in 2010 is nothing to celebrate, Saldivar said, it was in fact “the highest growth in the region,” and better than the 1.5% record in 2007, the last full year of the People’s United Party administration.

Belize is now on a growth path that is sustainable, said Saldivar.

He also said that government would be increasing funding for the National Health Insurance scheme for the southern districts, and construction works would continue. He added that 7 of 9 municipalities will receive a major facelift. “Yet the Leader of the Opposition says it is an empty budget!” said Saldivar.

Former Prime Minister Said Musa, member for Fort George and past PUP leader, said that what this entire budget exercise shows is that the Barrow administration has no development plan, no strategy to stimulate new economic activities, no new ideas to increase productivity and exports, no ability to generate job opportunity, no sustained action to improve the quality of life of the Belizean people—and there is growing poverty in our country.

“Because of you,” was the response that came from the gallery.

In reviewing the government’s performance on the current budget, Musa said government has spent “not one cent for the school feeding program,” and $5.2 million has been cut from projects for the poor.

There is no money for the Youth for the Future Initiative, as “they want to kill it,” said Musa.

He added that the funds earmarked for Special Education for Children with Special Needs is $4,000 for disabled children.

“What a disgrace! ¡Que vergüenza!” said Musa.

Musa also said that lending rates are still not down, as government has said would have happened; all the oil profits are repatriated out of the country—a clear indication of capital flight under the UDP—and there continues to be “abject failure” in the fight against crime. “They changed the minister, but it is still an abject failure,” he stated.

Whereas today and tomorrow have been set aside for the budget debate, members of the House also took the opportunity to make campaign pitches to the public. Both Briceño and Musa took that opportunity today.

Briceño said in ending his speech that the UDP has to go; Musa asserted that the Barrow administration is a one-term government.

In answering Briceño’s statement, Saldivar said, they “cannot have a return to the recklessness and [fleecing] of the PUP. There should be no return to the old ways of PUP...”

Also among those supporting the budget today were Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, area representative for Orange Walk North; Port Loyola area representative Anthony “Boots” Martinez; and Cayo South area representative Ramon Witz.

The debate is slated to resume at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, Friday, March 25.