Mr. Speaker,

I rise to move the second reading of the General Revenue Appropriation Bill for Fiscal Year 2016/2017.

This is the inaugural budget in the recently won, historic, third consecutive term of the UDP Administration. And this edition, in like fashion as the previous eight budgets I have read, will-I believe-reassure general citizenry and particular stakeholders alike that the current and forecast state of the public finances of Belize are both sturdy and stable. There is, of course, a narrow political minority that reflexively opposes everything UDP. But impartial observers all agree that the sterling stewardship of the people’s money was foremost in the minds of the voters as they cast their ballots last November. Our consistent and long record of judicious financial management, Mr. Speaker, has produced an unbroken period of steady growth and optimal economic conditions. There is now a historical vindication of both our philosophy and our probity.

Let us look at the facts, Mr. Speaker:

First, there is an unmatched string of year on year increases to the size and diversity of the economy. And this has been complemented by the longest post-Independence period of low inflation, reductions in the cost of borrowing for both private and public sectors, and increases in revenue generation by the Government.

Second, we have been architects of monumental advances in the wellbeing of the working class as measured by the lowest unemployment in a decade, and by the surge in real wages. I remind all that in the case of our 12,000 public officers and teachers, the salary augmentations amount, with this the third consecutive year of increase which I proudly declare now will take place, to almost 25 percent. That, by any measure and in comparison with any country anywhere, is absolutely spectacular. And complementing and buttressing this new purchasing power for the middle class is our robust safety net for the disadvantaged, including our signature BOOST and Food Pantry Programs, record education and health subsidies, and now an increase in SSB monthly payments to 8,000 pensioners.

The third point to make in this context, is the unremitting swell of public investments in national infrastructure such as streets, drains, roads, bridges, sporting facilities, parks and playgrounds. When assessed in its totality over the nine budget cycles, this will have surpassed $1.5 billion and will have touched the lives of citizens in every corner of the country. Thus it is that in introducing this Budget, Mr. Speaker, my Administration is able to demonstrate its fidelity to, and reaffirmation of, the vow we first swore in 2008 and renewed in 2012 and 2015: our commitment to strive always and ceaselessly for advance, for equity and for openness in our stewardship of the public finances.

I now turn to the details of the budget outturn for Fiscal Year 2015/16.

For Fiscal Year 2015/2016 the Central Government is projecting a Primary Deficit of $87.6 million, the equivalent of 2.46 percent of GDP; and an Overall Deficit of $180.1 million or 5.1 percent of GDP.

These compare to the budgeted Primary Surplus of 0.1 percent of GDP and an Overall Deficit of 2.47 per cent of GDP.

In dollars and cents terms, the Overall Deficit increased by some $ 92.1 million over budget.

At first sight, the mismatch between the outturn and what was budgeted is dramatic. But the main reason for such a wide divergence is two-fold and easily explained.

First, included in these numbers is the extraordinary payment of just over $97 million dollars in respect of the settlement of the International Arbitration Award related to the British Caribbean Bank Loan to Belize Telemedia Ltd. And, second, is the additional spending of almost $55 million on the National Road Rehabilitation Program and some $15 million more on Sport Facilities. All of this was financed under the PetroCaribe Program.

Taken together, then, these two items amount to additional spending of $167 million. This was offset somewhat by an improved recurrent surplus of $45 million over budget, and by an underspending of some $29.9 million in the donor supported capital program. But the end result was still this Overall Deficit increase of $92.1 million. The point is, though, that on both fronts (Arbitration payment and sport and infrastructure investment) the un-programmed spending was not only justifiable but commendable.

That is because, Mr. Speaker, the liquidation of the International Arbitration Award was part of a wider global settlement with former shareholders of Belize Telemedia Ltd. This resulted in an end to the litigation efforts by those former shareholders to force the return to them of this national asset, and confirmed sovereign Belizean ownership now and forever over BTL.

In accounting and budgetary terms, the payment to the British Caribbean Bank is being treated as an advance to the Belize Telemedia Ltd. with arrangements for repayment of this to GOB over an extended period of time. Mr. Speaker, the investments in road rehabilitation and sporting facilities have been unprecedented and have transformed this country in a way never seen before and unlikely ever to be seen again. Thus, the 70 million is treated as a one-off capital expenditure, which was undertaken given the availability of the highly concessionary funding under the PetroCaribe Program. Now we do absolutely expect the continuation of similar capital investments programs, though not at the same level. The extent of this reduced but still robust new normal will be determined by a number of factors, about which I shall say more later.

But to repeat, Mr. Speaker, the public works done in these two areas are landmark and permanent. Under the Road Rehabilitation Program we have upgraded streets in Belize City and in every District Town, including San Pedro. The Philip Goldson Highway through Orange Walk Town has been dramatically improved at a cost of millions of dollars, as has a section of the San Antonio Road. And there is so much more. We have also upgraded, or built, roads to major tourism attractions, including the Old Northern Highway to Altun Ha, and the Franks Eddy Road to the Sibun River. The North Ambergris Caye Road is getting ever closer to the Basil Jones site of the new Efrain Guerrero Airport, and work proceeds apace on the road to Lamanai. The Hummingbird rehabilitation is underway, and so is the redo of the Philip Goldson Highway between the eponymous International Airport and Belize City. We have also commenced the improvement of the roads through San Antonio and on to Mountain Pine Ridge and, ultimately, Caracol. And throughout we are getting value for money!

Under the supervision and management of Belize Infrastructure Ltd. (BIL), major upgrades are being done, or are completed, to the Victor Galvez Stadium, Falcon Field, and the Santa Elena Football Facilities in the West. In Belmopan the Isidoro Beaton Football Field will be the pride of Belmopan when it is opened in just over a week's time. In the South, the Carl Ramos Stadium in Dangriga and the Toledo Union Field are about to be finished. And in Belize City ground has been broken and work started for a world class Basketball and Multi-Purpose Arena at the old City Center site. Truly a feast of progress and uplift that has marked what must now be seen as the UDP's and Belize's finest physical developmental hour.

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