The national budget debate wrapped up at 7:10 tonight, Thursday, July 12, 2012, with Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow making the concluding statements.
“Any way you slice it, this budget, careful though it is...is a growth budget – a budget of planned, incremental but significant expansion and it is a budget now that is rooted in the success of the last few years,” said Barrow.
Barrow added that for the first time, the country’s GDP is projected to surpass three billion dollars.
“There is no gainsaying the fact of measurable, tangible increases in both recurrent and capital allocations in this budget,” he added, pointing to emphasis on education, health, poverty alleviation and human development, and national security.
All this, he said, will come with no tax hikes and with the expansion of targeted relief to the marginalized.
After Barrow’s remarks, the revenue appropriation bill for 2012/2013, the national budget titled, “Exercising Discipline While Preserving Growth” was read a second and then a third and final time, giving the stamp of approval by the House of Representatives. It next goes to the Senate before taking effect.
First to speak in the budget debate on Wednesday morning was Opposition Leader of the People’s United Party Francis Fonseca, Area Representative for Freetown, who called the Barrow budget one of “excuses”—for why the Government cannot grow the economy, find jobs, attract investment and bring down the cost of living. Those excuses, he said, are the global economic recession, bad weather, declining petroleum receipts and the billion-dollar super bond.
“All this whining and all these excuses from the very same prime minister who only last year stood in these very same chambers presenting the 2011-2012 budget and boasted... of success and a return to growth,” said Fonseca.
He questioned: “What happened between all that big talk last year and this year, and just how real are these excuses?”
UDP Area Representative for Belmopan, John Saldivar, Minister of National Security, did not elaborate on the national security budget, but focused much of his presentation on responding to Fonseca, maintaining that the budget is not a “hard-time” budget but one of discipline.
“Maybe they are calling it a hard-time budget because they know we have to pay whopping $94 million on the super bond [this year],” said Saldivar, adding that Government will have to find $28 million more for those payments “because of fi unu [PUP] foolishness.”
PUP Area Representative for Fort George, Said Musa, put the spotlight on the gang truce, saying, “Government is prepared to spend a million on the gang truce program. Is it really working?” He suggested that the Barrow administration sets up a farming community near the western border, where it can apportion land titles to young people to farm there and teach them how to produce and have a stake in this their motherland. Asked if he would be willing to go too, Musa said “yes.”
As for Government’s investment in security, Musa joked about the lack of helicopter support for Belize Defence Force soldiers on the border, who have the tough task of policing illegal incursions on the border. He said that the BDF “are using horses to carry their heavy equipment in the jungle”—the same horses that have been confiscated from Guatemalans. “Three were confiscated from illegal Guat settlers,” said Musa.
When the horses reached the border, they galloped over the border with the BDF’s provisions; one fainted before reaching the border and the horses didn’t come back, said Musa, later suggesting that the Government should ask the Pentagon to help with at least one helicopter for the BDF.
UDP chairman, Patrick Faber, Education Minister and Area Representative for Collet, said that whereas the Opposition has pointed out areas where the Government is not doing well, it is because of the burden left on the nation by the PUP. “There is no getting around that,” he said.
Fonseca talked about the UDP administration making excuses, but, said Faber, “... it is all true. The super bond is a serious burden that cannot be overlooked; it cannot be escaped.”
PUP Area Representative for Orange Walk Central, Johnny Briceño, commented on issues such as the unemployment rate, foreign investment, and the large spread between the lending and savings rates offered by the commercial banks.
Briceño said that he is glad that Prime Minister Dean Barrow had mentioned the continuing problem with high interest rates in his budget speech on June 29, that something has to be done to reduce the lending rate, which, said Briceño, would mean that people will be more willing to save and borrow, thereby stimulating the Belizean economy.
Whereas Briceño, like other senior members of the PUP have publicly expressed their hope that the Government will succeed in the renegotiation of the super bond, as “all of us will benefit,” he urged the Government to “begin with reducing government expenditure.”
Briceño questioned: “Do we have to spend another million in new vehicles?” He noted that last year, the Government had budgeted $1 mil and spent $1.9 million. Now, he said, they have spent another million. That, he said, reflects “no discipline!”
Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, UDP Area Representative for Orange Walk North, also Minister of Natural Resources, said that he would recommend to Cabinet for Government to implement a second tranch of the land tax amnesty program, to increase collections due to Government.
Vega also spoke of reforms in land management that will continue to happen with the new budget in August of this year, to improve service delivery and reduce the cost to the public, since people will no longer have to travel to Belmopan to catch queues for basic information, and since rural offices are to be better outfitted to serve the public.
He also mentioned a $250,000 allocation to facilitate the second phase of the first-time landowners program.
Florencio Marin, Jr., PUP Area Representative for Corozal Southeast, took issue with overspending in the budget, noting that in one instance, the allocation was overspent by as much as 40% or $2.7 million in the Ministry of Natural Resources, without any accounting for the overspending.
“Our pro-poor polices are working and we are moving on up like the Jeffersons,” said UDP Mesopotamia Area Representative Michael Finnegan, Minister of Housing, who also spoke of funds to be spent on the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project. The Leader of the Opposition is accusing the UDP of not finding jobs, but if government is spending $24 mil and people can’t find jobs, something wrong with the UDP, said Finnegan.
PUP Area Representative for Belize Rural Central, Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, one of the Opposition’s deputy leaders, who also took issue with the scarcity of jobs, said that the Barrow budget is devoid of creativity and has no meaningful capital investment, no vision.
“Blind eye Jamsie could tell yu, where there is no vision, the people perish,” she commented, adding later that, “This is not a budget of growth but one of stagnation...”
UDP Area Representative for Port Loyola, Anthony “Boots” Martinez, closed off Day 1 of the debate with comments on government’s social assistance programs, with particular emphasis on the program dubbed “Building Opportunity for Our Social Transformation” (BOOST), or, alternatively, he said, “Building Opportunities for Our Transformation Socially (BOOTS)”, a program which he said has stood up to international scrutiny, having been commended by the World Bank.
Toledo East Area Representative for the PUP, Mike Espat, led off a less steamy Day 2 of the budget debate on Thursday.
“I do not believe that this budget adequately provides for Toledo,” Espat said.
He said that the people of his constituency are particularly disappointed that this budget does not provide jobs for them. The South has been neglected and there is nothing in this budget for them, he said.
Pointing to Government’s pro-poor programs, he said, some of the people who end up getting aid do not really need it, while some of those who need don’t get.
Rene Montero, UDP Area Representative for Cayo Central, who is also the Minister of Works and Transport, maintained the UDP stance that the proposed national budget is “one that addresses the social and economic issues of our country.”
However, Jose Abelardo, PUP Area Representative for Orange Walk South, pointed to the very low allocation for agriculture, which he reports at 2.5% for agriculture. He said that agriculture needs to be given a higher level of importance. It deserves a fatter budget, at least 10%, he argued.
UDP Area Representative for Cayo West, Erwin Contreras, who is also the Minister of Trade, Investment, Promotion, Private Sector Development and Consumer Protection, said that under this new budget, Government, led by his ministry and Office of the Prime Minister, will allocate resources needed to strengthen the public-private sector dialogue. Consultation with the private sector, he said, will produce a roadmap for national development.
Later on in the debate, PUP Area Representative for Stann Creek West, Rodwell Ferguson, rose to give his contribution to the debate. He said that he does not see anything in the budget for the 26 villages he represents, but he did not at first get into many specifics. Ferguson was chastised for engaging in what Speaker of the House, Michael Peyrefitte, called “redundancies” and “irrelevancies” in his presentation. Peyrefitte constantly warned Ferguson during the course of his presentation to stick to the standing orders and focus his comments on the budget, or he would ask him to discontinue his speech.
The Speaker cut Ferguson’s presentation short, first apologizing to Stann Creek West constituents and then directing the area representative to “discontinue your speech and resume your seat.”
Responding to a query from Leader of the Opposition Francis Fonseca, asking for him to explain his actions, the Speaker said: “I warned the member over and over not to persist in irrelevance...”
Ferguson was later permitted to continue his speech on the budget debate.
On Wednesday morning, Parliament received committee reports on proposed amendments to The Income and Business Tax Act and the Evidence Act, as well as a Caribbean Development Bank loan motion for the expansion of water and sewage facilities on Ambergris Caye. Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow introduced an amendment to the Belize Offshore Practitioners Act while the Minister of Works and Transport, Rene Montero, introduced amendments to the Belize Airports Authority Act, for an increase in penalties for violations of regulations under the act. The House continued with the business of approving the proposed legislation on Thursday night, after the budget debate, although, Barrow had noted, the Opposition members had left the Chambers. (The last to remain, he said, was the Dangriga Area Rep, Ivan Ramos.)
The House also approved tonight a motion to have Godwin Arzu reappointed by the Governor-General as Contractor-General for another two years, effective January 1, 2012, on the same terms and conditions as his prior contract. Amandala