The Minister of Finance has just met cynical expectations by announcing Trinidad & Tobago’s largest-ever budget for 2015, with estimated revenue of $60.351 Billion in support of estimated expenditure of $64.664 Billion. This expenditure is $4.313 Billion more than the expected revenue, with 2015 being the sixth consecutive year of deficit budgets with a nominal total of just under $34 Billion in excess expenditure in that period.
With national elections due within the next 12 months, a deficit budget was no surprise, but there are still significant items of concern for discussion –
Once again the long-delayed Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property law was mentioned (at pg 65) –
…We are expediting the process of preparing the regulations to make this legislation effective once it is approved by this Honourable House…
This critical new law is essential for there to be effective and modern controls on transactions in Public Money, which is the very lifeblood of virtually the entire economy. The new laws were promised within one year of the election if the Peoples Partnership won and it is now over four years since that. The Senate approved this Bill unanimously on 11 June 2014, but the progress of this critical new law has been delayed for virtually 3 months with no explanation.
The silence of the Minister of Finance as to the date on which this new law will be approved by Parliament is enough to give one pause as to the seemingly-deliberate delays which have beset the passage of this Bill.
The JCC continues its calls for this essential new law to be passed without further delay. Effective Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property law is needed now to reduce the waste and theft of Public Money.
Beetham Water Recycling Project (BWRP)
Having omitted the Billion-Dollar-Plus BWRP from the 2014 Budget Statement and entirely ignored the various calls for its inclusion in the national accounts, the Minister of Finance & the Economy went ‘one better’ at pg 38 of the 2015 Budget Statement –
…With the completion of the Beetham Waste Water Project, the Industrial Estate at Point Lisas will benefit from a reliable and high quality water supply, thereby diverting 10 million gallons per day of good-quality potable water to the national community…
Howai seems to have had no regard to the fundamental outstanding issues on the rationale for or the underlying commercial arrangements which are driving the entire process.
To ignore these concerns is exactly the kind of poor governance and lack of accountability which the very same Minister Howai cited as reasons for the dismissal of the Caribbean Airlines Board members in May 2013. In the sobering words of the old saying ‘Is a straight case of Nearer to Church, further from God‘. If Howai wishes to continue to enjoy the respect and esteem in which he was widely held before his entry into politics, he needs to reconsider his silence on the BWRP.
The several aspects of this important part of the Welfare State were set out at pgs 52-55, with two salient points being the waiting-list which was said to exceed 160,000 and the baffling statement on output –
…3,000 new housing units are being built with resources from the public sector investment programme and local borrowing; more than 1,000 have already been completed at Egypt Village, Princes Town, Union Hall and Victoria Keys… (pg 53)
All very ambiguous, as it seems the Minister was unable to state plainly just how many new homes are to be built in the fiscal year 2015. That ambiguity as to the target output is not acceptable in a program of this importance.
The other aspect which is unstated and even more unacceptable is the fact a large proportion of the roughly-17,000 new homes built in our country’s present Housing Policy remain empty with no rationale. My information is that the true proportion of empty new homes built by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) is likely in excess of 40% of the entire amount built. Those empty homes should be occupied by the most needy applicants at the earliest opportunity, which will occupy the homes, reduce the high expense of security and create income (either from rentals or sales) to re-invest in the HDC’s operations.
Given that the original target of the 2002 policy – ‘Showing Trinidad & Tobago a new way home’ – was to build 100,000 new homes in a decade, the achievements and lessons-learned of this policy do need to be carefully examined. The time is ripe for a thorough non-partisan review of this important national policy.
At pg 66, Minister Howai raised the long-outstanding issue of Campaign Finance reform –
…A Joint Select Committee on Campaign Finance Reform has also been established…
The work of that JSC would be fundamental in inviting submissions and putting forward proposals as to how the influence of the party political financier can be disclosed and therefore controlled. That work must proceed without delay or secrecy, so citizens need to be very vigilant on this issue. The JCC restates its call for the work of this JSC to now proceed without delay.
The Elephant in the Room
The section devoted to ‘Office Accommodation’ at pg 43 was most useful in providing some clarity as to the anticipated completion date of the much-delayed offices in Port-of-Spain –
- October 2014, next month, the Customs and Excise Division of the Ministry of Finance and the Economy;
- March 2015 the Immigration Division of the Ministry of National Security;
- August 2015 the Board of Inland Revenue Division of the Ministry of Finance and the Economy;
- September 2015 the Ministry of Legal Affairs; and
- September 2015 the Ministry of Education.
Mr. Speaker, the Government is collaborating with the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago with a view to outfitting all remaining buildings for occupation in 2016.
In conclusion, my lasting impression, upon re-reading, is of a high-stakes election budget. The budget debate will provide greater insight on these aspects, once the participants maintain a good standard of discussion.
Hence my title – ‘A Fistful of Dollars‘.