Delays Implementation of Tax Measure, GOB Loses Revenue
Yesterday was the first time that the re-constituted Senate met with all 13 members. As we told you last night, the government side of 6 senators were in the minority for the first time in Belize's history. So, the Senate had the opportunity even to delay the budget, which is the centerpiece of governance. But they didn't do that because the Churches voted with the government Senator to pass the budget. But, the Church voted against one of the revenue measures that goes along with the budget. That's the PACT Amendment Bill, which will be amended to put an additional fee on visitors leaving the country. The Church Senator said it will affect the Christian missionaries who visit Belize, so he voted against it. And with that, for the first time, the Senate rejected a money bill. It's consequential for government which is hosting to raise 11 million dollars in the next fiscal year with this measure. But by rejecting it, the Senate only delays implementation by a month - meaning the Government will lose one month of revenue from this measure. Today, the man who was named the 13th Senator discussed the history and implications with CTV-3 in Orange Walk.
Hon. Osmany Salas- NGO Senator
"Yes, it was historic in that for the first time ever, or as far as I can recall, this is the first time that a government bill was voted down, as you just said. I think it shows what an empowered senate can do. I still can't tell you for sure if by voting down this bill it means that it killed it or if it just delayed it; and I feel like we have just delayed it because in particular if it is a money bill, and I'm still trying to determine if it continues a money bill, if it's a money bill the senate cannot stop money bills, it can delay it for a little while. But we would hope that by sending it back, there can be more careful thought put into it and some consultation done with stakeholders and anybody that would be affected. There were several stakeholders that had expressed their concerns about that particular PACT amendment bill that would have introduced what is referred to as a development fee that would be tacked on, will be charged to none Belizeans departing the country from the airport. They would have paid an extra $32.50 added on to their departure tax, which would have increased the overall departure tax to almost $56 US, about 41% higher than what they are paying now. That development fee didn't have anything to do with PACT, yet the PACT legislation was being amended to slip that in, that would not have benefited PACT and its beneficiaries in anyway."
"Now the fact remains that this money bill can only be delayed and after 30 days it will be signed into law. How do you feel about this that it will be signed into law after?"
Hon. Osmany Salas- NGO Senator
"Well you know if the government proceeds with signing it into law 30 days from now as it is they are sending an interesting message out there. They are saying that they really don't care how the senate felt about it."
The Senate approved the other 11 bills brought by the House.
PACT Bill Voted Down in Senate
For one of the rare instances in Belizean legislative history, the 'noes' had it in the Senate with regard to the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (Amendment) Bill on its second reading. The amendment proposed to introduce a development fee to be collected from any border administered with support from PACT, and was one of the Government's revenue measures for the Budget. But it was widely condemned as unwisely siphoning off needed money for the management of protected areas. It was also said to be unnecessary with such large holes in the Budget such as more than fifty million in uncollected taxes over two years. At the end of the debate, a division was called and the bill narrowly voted down, seven to six, with all social partner senators voting with the Opposition. We have highlights of the debate, with representations from Senators Osmany Salas and Valerie Woods, both of whom have experience with the conservation community.
Osmany Salas, Senator, Non-Governmental Organizations
"I see this proposal to introduce "a development fee" using the Protected Areas Conservation Trust Act as a tinkering of what has been a good legislation and that will not have any direct bearing on the financing needs for our protected areas system. The financing gap is huge, and I thought we should put all efforts into reducing the financing gap for our national parks and protected areas that form the basis for our tourism product. That is making a mockery, the way I look at it, of the Protected Areas Conversation Trust and the Act."
Valerie Woods, P.U.P. Senator
"For those who may not even be aware of why this is such a slap in the face, frankly, to the conservation groups out there in Belize, we have to appreciate that it took years and governments - 'cause it wasn't a P.U.P. thing, or a U.D.P. thing; it was successive and different governments that made the PACT model what it was; and in one swoop, we are going to undo all of that effort. And why are we going to undo it, when we look at the very same Budget that we just went through, and we recognize there is over fifty-five million dollars out there in taxes, that stands uncollected. And if we collect it, it would more than make up for what this thirty-two dollars and fifty cents would bring in."
As the amendment is essentially a Money Bill, we are told that the Government has the option of amending and re-presenting the Bill. It has been noted that the entire Budget itself, if the vote had gone the other way, could have been delayed for up to three months with no major effect on the Public Service or the last tranche of salary adjustments for teachers and public officers.