Prime Minister Dean Barrow today hosted his first quarterly news conference of the year. The near two-hour long event was held at the Biltmore Hotel and covered many issues including the economy, the sugar and citrus industries, oil exploration and infrastructure development.  The Prime Minister, at the start of his presentation announced that budget day in Belize will be Friday, March eleventh.  And then he proceeded to give a review of the budget performance for the current fiscal year.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“Total revenue and grant receipts are currently at 559.6 million dollars, total expenditure is currently at 566.7 million dollars so that there is an overall deficit at this point in time of 7.1 million dollars. The good news is that currently there is a recurrent balance of 72.4million and a primary surplus of 44.5 million dollars. Total revenue so is 554.8million and that is up by 44.5million compared to the similar period for fiscal year 2009-2010 where there has been a sharp decline is with respect to grant receipts, in fact, those have gone from 78.7 to 4.8million dollars. Of course all sorts of pressures have come to bear on our traditional sources for grants.”

The Prime Minister said that the reduction in grant funding was offset by revenue receipts from the General Sales Tax and local petroleum production.  He said that so far this fiscal year, Business Tax and Royalties have accounted for forty nine point three million dollars; which is twenty seven point four million dollars more than the 2009-2010 fiscal year.  GST collection currently stands at one hundred and forty point nine million dollars. Although that is twenty four point eight million dollars more than the same period last year, the Prime Minister noted that it is still below the one hundred and fifty five million dollar target set for the nine month period so far in the fiscal year. And the Prime Minister says that early indications are that Belize will register a Gross Domestic Product growth of two point five percent for 2010.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“We are moving right along and we expect that this will be a good budget. Certainly and principally because i repeat what i said a couple of weeks ago, there are going to be no new taxes for the Belizean people for this fiscal year.”

On Tuesday, Belize Sugar Industries Limited, BSI announced that it is forced to halt production at its Tower Hill factory due to a malfunctioning steam turbine at the BELCOGEN co-generation plant.  It is a potentially devastating turn of events in a production season that by all accounts was on target to be one of the best in recent memory.  Prime Minister Barrow commented on the situation this morning.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“We’re very devastated yesterday to hear that BSI will have to close down it appears for about four weeks as a consequence of the difficulties they started experiencing with two of their steam turbines. The factory met with the farmers and with Government with the Sugar Industry Control Board chaired by Hugo Patt and with Mr. Novelo from the Ministry of Agriculture who is Governments main man in terms of trying to ensure that the tripartite agreement that we had forged is properly implemented. I spoke to the president of the BSCFA Mr Ortega bout yesterday and this morning and everybody is of course trying to put their best foot forward, put a brave face on what has happened so there is a degree of solidarity that is comforting but It  can’t gainsay that this is a setback.”

On the issue of offshore drilling, the Prime Minister says that government’s decision not to re-issue the concession given up by OPIC should be seen as a victory for environmentalists. The Prime Minister says that the decision was taken from last Thursday in response to a letter from Oceana-Belize. The decision not to reissue the concession at this time will give the Coalition time to gather the signatures necessary to trigger the needed referendum, which the Prime Minister says he has no problem with.  But he says when it comes to the Sarstoon Temash National Park, his government has no intention of stopping a US Capital Energy from going ahead with drilling, despite strong opposition from the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, which co-manages the park.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“In so far as national parks that are not offshore, onshore national parks are concerned I made it absolutely plain that the Government has no intention in stopping the exploration process, especially not in the Sarstoon Temash Park which I believe is still being co-manage by Mr. Choc’s organization. That area the geologists say is perhaps the highest potential area in the country and the question of the legality of drilling in the National Park went to Court and the Supreme Court gave a decision saying that this was perfectly consistent, perfectly in order. That remains the position of the Government and that position will not change. US Capital energy which is the company that has the concession I think is no more than 6 to 9 months away from actually beginning to drill. And certainly when they reach that point drill they will and hopefully we can find some more oil that will help us to begin to meet with some degree of ease these super bond payments that are such a Damocles sword.”

During the question and answer period, the situation with high fuel prices was raised and a suggestion put forward that perhaps the dollar tax might be revisited in order to bring some relief to consumers. The Prime Minister noted that the dollar tax is not the problem; but rather the acquisition cost, something which government has no control over.  And while the PM says we can’t expect any relief before the next budget, he is prepared to look at revising the GST on fuel, even though it will be difficult to manage.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“I can’t go out there and do something about the import duty, have which is fixed, have the prices go down and then rush back to the house to take back up the import duty. What we are looking at and we will not make any move before the budget because whatever fix we come up with must that account of volatility and must be as permanent a fix as you can possibly get. What we are looking at is the GST because that is where in fact what Government collects is not fixed it increased as the overall acquisitions cost increased.”

And while he is prepared to look at adjusting the GST on fuel, the Prime Minster says government has to be sure of where it will get the revenue to offset any reduction, so that his administration will be able to continue with its social agenda.  Another issue put to the prime minister on this the third anniversary of his administration, was the manifesto promises made by the United Democratic Party prior to the election and how many of those promises have been delivered.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“I haven’t done that exercise what i do know is that in the municipal elections that were held the first municipal elections after we became the National Government we won handsomely. IN the village council elections that were held last year we won handsomely, in the conventions that we are holding the contested conventions we are bringing out huge crowds and we can’t help but make the comparison for example in Corozal Bay between our conventions and the conventions held by the PUP. So I would say to you sir that while there is absolutely no basis for complacency, no room for complacency, while we know that we have to be to some extent the victim of attrition. You can’t be in Government and expect that the course of governance will run smooth. You can’t be able to satisfy all the needs and certainly all the wants of the people. But i at this juncture am convinced that the majority of the people in this country that the UDP is an honest to goodness government that has the welfare of the masses of the inhabitants of the country well in the forefront of its mind and the forefront of its agenda and all things considered continue to believe in the United Democratic Party.”

On the issue of the Citrus industry, the Prime Minister says that after two meetings, the partners in the industry have agreed that there is not a material dispute which has been submitted to arbitration. Still, he says, both sides in the impasse need to work out their differences in order to offset any potential crisis. He says that government stands ready to assist but is curtailed in doing so since it is wholly a matter between private partners and secondly because the matter has now gone into arbitration.  The Prime Minister was accompanied at this morning’s press conference by several members of cabinet, Chief Executive Officers and members of the United Democratic Party.