“Full belly di tell empty belly keep heart…” – Opposition Leader
On Friday, March 1, in the National Assembly, Prime Minister Dean Barrow read his 6th national budget speech, captioned “Achieving debt sustainability, stimulating economic expansion”, in which he boasted nearly half-a-billion dollars in savings for debt repayments, and no new taxes.
The proposed budget calls for $934 million in overall spending, $72 million more than last year, despite significant savings in interest repayments on the super-bond, the exchange offer for which closed yesterday, March 20.
The 2013/2014 budget, due to take effect on April 1, is being debated for two days. Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca kicked off the 2013 debate of the national budget this morning, saying that, “For the sixth budget in a row, Belizeans have been treated to a full menu of chest thumping, and whining and empty, hollow rhetoric…. It is a budget disconnected and divorced from the Belizean reality.”
Fonseca said that the UDP’s budget for fiscal year 2013/2014 reflects an absolute lack of consultation with social and economic partners.
“We fully recognize and appreciate that in 2013, consultation is no longer optional. It is a requirement of a democracy – it is a requirement for development,” Fonseca said.
The budget, said the Leader of the Opposition, does nothing to offer Belizeans hope and inspire them to become engaged in the work of building Belize.
He pointed to lost jobs, business shutdowns, defaulted loans and foreclosures, children out of school—general hard times, which make people “increasingly unable to put food on the table.”
“That is the Belizean reality today…” Fonseca said. “The Belizean people, the Belizean economy are struggling and no amount of chest thumping, no amount of self-congratulation… no amount of trumpeting… of pseudo-nationalism will change this harsh, sober reality,” he stated.
Fonseca asked: Where is the reduced GST? Where are the reduced electricity rates?
The GST rate went in the other direction, and electricity rates went up 17% since January, he said.
“Where are the shares in the national oil company you promised the people?” Fonseca asked Barrow.
“Where are the lower fuel costs?” he also questioned.
Pointing to the length of time that the United Democratic Party has been in power, Fonseca said that the nation has seen “5 years of increasing crime under the UDP.”
Crime and violence are eating away at Belize’s social fabric, said Fonseca.
“Loud mouth and sharp tongue won’t help us to win the war against crime,” he commented.
He also spoke of “skyrocketing cost of living…,” citing the trade unions as saying that the cost of living increased 30% over the past 5 years.
“Loud mouth and sharp tongue won’t bring down cost of living,” said Fonseca, asking the Barrow administration: “Where is your plan to reduce the cost of living?”
He said that the Opposition joins with teachers and public officers in demanding at least a 5% increase in salaries this year.
“They need it now,” the Opposition Leader asserted.
“Full belly di tell empty belly keep heart,” he said.
The Opposition Leader also highlighted what he called “the latest and perhaps greatest illusion” of the schemes announced by the UDP administration – BIL or the Belize Infrastructure Limited, a special- purpose vehicle Barrow mentioned in his budget presentation three weeks ago. Fonseca said that the public should take note of this development.
Barrow had announced that “…there is a sixty-million-dollar infrastructure package to be financed and implemented via the newly registered, wholly GOB-owned, private company called Belize Infrastructure Limited. This is the special-purpose vehicle that will create jobs, stimulate demand, purchase private sector material and supplies, and generally raise that tide that will float all Belizean boats.”
However, Fonseca said that BIL is “the latest in a long line of UDP political gimmicks…”
Fonseca said that he has had a chance to look at the articles and memorandum of association of the company and the chairman is Works Minister Rene Montero, who is also a director. Sports minister Herman Longsworth is also a member of the board.
Orange Walk Central area rep for the Opposition, Johnny Briceño, called BIL a “special hustle vehicle.” Briceño has a few questions about the company: Where is the $60 mil for BIL in the budget? Will the Contractor General scrutinize BIL? Why is the Contractor General (Godwin Arzu) on the board?
We are far from the “forward and upward” march the prime minister spoke of in his presentation, said Briceño.
Said Musa, ex-prime minister, the Opposition member for Fort George, also said that the movement of the nation has, instead, been “backward and downward.”
Another major issue discussed was the state of the Belizean economy: The Central Bank of Belize is forecasting a 2.7% growth in Belize’s Gross Domestic Product for 2013. Fonseca said that agriculture growth is projected for 2013 at a low single-digit figure: a mere 1.8%, whereas growth in the manufacturing sector is forecasted to shrink by 2.4%.
Minister of National Security John Saldivar said in his presentation that the GDP growth of over 5% recorded for 2012 is the highest in the last 10 years. The 5.3% growth, said Saldivar, was glossed over by the Leader of the Opposition, who instead of praising themselves for restructuring the national debt before leaving office, should be crying “mea culpa,” for those debts acquired in a span of only a few years.
Musa said that the GDP growth figures must not be real, because more people are poor, people are losing their jobs, businesses are closing, and property owners are frequently facing foreclosures.
He also said that GDP growth averaged 5% under the PUP administrations spanning 1998-2008, but the UDP has averaged 2.6% under their administration.
Musa also questioned: If the GDP is really growing, why can’t public officers get at least a 5% raise?
Musa, who said that the nation has gone “backward and downward” instead of “forward and upward,” also spoke of cuts in healthcare assistance, important in light of data that indicate rising healthcare costs.
“Tell them why as soon as you came into office you started to dismantle this NHI [National Health Insurance] program…” Musa questioned. “Then you want to talk about safety net for the people?”
On the issue of crime, Musa noted that there are 5 sentences in the budget presentation dedicated to the issue. He also pointed to millions in budget cuts for certain line items in the national security budget for 2012, including the Belize Defence Force, the Crimes Investigation Branch, as well as for intelligence gathering efforts.
The police are demanding more resources but, said Musa, “They are being given a basket to carry water because they are not being given the assistance they need.”
National Security Minister John Saldivar said in today’s debate, however, that for the second year in a row, his ministry’s overall budget is being increased.
Musa did note that for the 2013 budget, there is an overall increase of $7 mil for national security.