The House of Representatives met today to go through all three readings of the Sugar Industry and Cogeneration Project Incentives Act.
That piece of legislation has been making news this week - because critics say the legislation gives lavish concessions to American Sugar Refining - the new majority shareholders of BSI.
The Government says that it's really nothing new - just a changeover from the BELCOGEN concession given to BSI by the Musa Administration in 2005.
SO, the PUP did it first - and now the UDP did it second….what dies that sound like? Ripe ingredients for a war of words across the house floor, of course. And that's just what we had in a robust, respectful debate that ended in an anticlimax as the opposition walked out.
But, let's not get ahead of ourselves - first to the heated words:
Prime Minister Dean Barrow - Prime Minister of Belize
"It is part of a development now, which represents the rescue of the Sugar Industry in this country. You already know, because they have been out there that they're opposed. The position being taken is one of ignorance compounded by malice. It is also one of the sharest possible hypocrisies. It is no-doubt the largest all-at-once foreign direct investment in this country in a generation. It is well-known, Mr. Speaker, that in return for an investment of this magnitude, governments all over the developing world offer the sorts of concessions and exemptions that we are offering by way of this bill. It is that those on the other side did absolutely the same thing a few years ago, when in fact, BSI decided to invest in co-generation. There is a BELCOGEN Co-Generation Project Act 2005 - which we're repealing today because this new act supplants it - which, Mr. Speaker, in its operative section says, 'Not withstanding anything to the contrary in the Sales Tax Act, the Customs and Excise Duties Act, the Customs Regulations Act, the Stamp Duties Act, the Environmental Tax Act, and the Exchange Control Regulation Act, and any regulations made thereunder or in any other law, regulation, rule, order, ordinance, or instrument having effect as part of the Laws of Belize - you can't get more omnibus than that - the project entities - and the project entities means collectively BELCOGEN, BSI, and the engineering contractor - the project entities shall be exempted from all taxes duties or imposts levied or imposed thereunder on receipts, income and profits for a period of 15 years from the date of the commencement of the project. All this bill is doing is in some cases to reduce the period of exemptions by a couple of years, and in 2 instances, to extend the period of exemption for 2 years."
Hon. Florencio Marin Jr. - Corozal Southeast, PUP
"That 2005 bill restricted these exemptions just for the biomass project BELCOGEN was a new project in 2005, a major investment of $62 US million, and it got all the support it needed from the Government of the time. This new bill extends it completely cart blanche. The 2005 one did not refer to cane farming; it referred simply to the biomass projection."
Hon. Jose Mai - Orange Walk South, PUP
"And now BSI is going to be given import duties and excise. I see this as unfair to the cane farmers. Plus, no environmental tax, Mr. Speaker, the cane farmer is at a disadvantage, while - and you can go out there and see for yourself - while BSI cane fields are expanded for miles. We are still struggle to kill for a copper, man."
Hon. Gaspar Vega - Orange Walk North, UDP
"These normal PUP's are just a set of 'blue concas'. These guys are a bunch of liars. There are 4 line items that have been altered from the act, 1, where the business tax is concerned, and they had a 7-year policy, and it should have extended to 2014. This Government has extended it to 2016; we don't have anything to hide, 2 years more for such an investment. 2 years more, that is what has been granted."
Hon. Marco Tulio Mendez - Orange Walk East, PUP
"My people are asking why would we give 10 years tax exemptions to a well-established company, why so much? We are demanding that our people, the cane farmers, be given the same tax exemptions that are being offered to ASR. They firmly believe that this exemption to ASR is unfair."
Hon. Pablo Marin - Corozal Bay, UDP
"This is the livelihood vast majority of the northern residents, and we, the northern residents who are sitting down in this Honorable House will support a bill for sake of the cane farmers. But if there is anyone not supporting this bill, it can only be seen as someone who does not care for his people."
Hon. Ramiro Ramirez - Corozal Southeast, PUP
"The member for Corozal Bay will beat his chest saying that he knows about this business. He doesn't know anything about this sugar industry. I could make a bet with him that I know more than he does. You want to help the farmers, give those opportunities that you are giving to ASR to the farmers. Let them see their money because they are the one who work 24 hours. He doesn't work 24 hours."
Hon. Hugo Patt - Corozal North, UDP
"There are cane farmers, and so-called cane farmers. You see, Mr. Speaker, when you get up 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, you pick up machete and your gallon, and you do a hard day's work under the sun, I am sure that you will not respond to the kind of responses that these people are giving."
Rt. Hon. Said Musa - Fort George, PUP
"We're being told by the other side - and indeed, the Prime Minister implied it as well - that this is simply a continuation of what was done by the PUP in 2005. Well, Mr. Speaker, let the record show that this is not correct. That is a fabrication because, let us look at the 2005 legislation; I brought a copy with me to the House today. Act 43 of 2005, an act to facilitate the effective implementation of the BELCOGEN Co-Generation project, unlike what is happening in this House today, is that the concession, the exemptions granted then in 2005 were confined to the project of the building of the co-generation plant, BELCOGEN. What is being done today, Mr. Hulse, and members of the dishonorable house - yes, Mr. Godwin Hulse, because he didn't tell the truth when he spoke on the TV last night. He did not disclose the full truth to the Belizean people that the act today, the bill today, is covering exemptions for the entire cane industry as it affects BSI, BELCOGEN, and American Sugar Inc. This is providing exemptions to the biggest global, multinational sugar company in the world, which has taken over Tate and Lyle, and which is now taking over BSI in Belize. Let us call a spade a spade. They are taking control of our sugar industry."
Hon. Francis Fonseca - Opposition Leader
"On behalf of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Assocation, the Corozal Sugar Cane Producers Association, indeed, on behalf of the cane farmers of this country, we need to defer this bill. There is no need for us to rush through this bill today. Our farmers need to be properly informed on what is taking place here today. They need to be properly consulted; we need to listen to them. I know that this is not something that comes easy to the UDP Government; you don't like to listen. You don't think you can learn anything from anybody else, but this is one time, you need to listen and learn from the cane farmers of this country."
Prime Minister Dean Barrow - Prime Minister of Belize
"In the end, I noticed that they began to thunder; he began to make a great deal of noise. It was Mark Twain who said, 'Noise is nothing.' Very often a hen that has merely laid an egg cackles as though it has laid an asteroid. The Leader of the Opposition, it reminds me of another speech of his. Man, you had your chance, please shut up and sit - oh! You're not going because, I'm coming to you next, you see."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - Speaker of the House
"Members of the Gallery!"
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
"I wonder if I can quickly move to him before... Oh! You see?"
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"Members of the Gallery! Members of the Gallery, remain silent, please, members of the gallery."
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
"Now, Mr. Speaker, how absolutely deplorable and disgraceful, they claim that they are so concerned about the bill. They claim that they want to be advocates for the cane farmers. They claim that there are certain requests they wish to make, when we get to the committee of whole, but they leave before that can happen. But why, because they are afraid of the tongue lashing that I am going to give them; I would think that they would be used to it by now. They are trying to draw a distinction between what's happening today, and what happened when that act was passed. What they were passing at that time was legislation that contained a development concession package to BSI; that is precisely what we are doing today. To argue, Mr. Speaker, that in fact at that time, when they gave the development concession package by way of the legislation, it was limited only to BELCOGEN, and we're extending it now to BSI. It's not just spurious; it is again completely dishonest, and given the lie by the facts. So, Mr. Speaker, please, for them to come and suggest that this is some unprecedented give-away is absolutely disingenuous, fraudulent, dishonest and meant to try to torpedo a piece of legislation that is very clearly in the best interests of the industry of the cane farmers generally of the economy of this country of Belize."
Yes, that was the opposition following former leader Said Musa's cue to walk out - which we gather was an impromptu move.
And after all the fuss, the "ay's" had it - the Sugar Industry and Cogeneration Project Incentives Act was passed by the house and will now go to the senate.
That single piece of legislation dominated today's discussion in the house but the Belize Municipal bond bill was also passed.
We'll have a little more from the house meeting later on in the newscast as former Prime Minister Said Musa made attacked the credibility of Senator/Minister Godwin Hulse.