This article is to engage the issues of falling national revenues due to price declines for fossil fuels, the ongoing commentary and the PM’s 8 January 2015 statement with its attendant criticisms. I am going to focus on the role of the real estate and construction sectors in this unfolding series of serious challenges.
This is the graph and table from my previous budget commentary ‘A Fistful of Dollars‘ to illustrate the trend in terms of how successive governments have attempted to balance revenues and expenditure.
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.
Next Monday, 8 September 2014, is carded for the Finance Minister to deliver his 2015 Budget Statement to the country and of course speculation is great as to whether this will be an ‘election budget‘ or if a more restrained approach might be taken.
In preparing to write this column, I took a look at our budgets since 2005 and it was really striking that many of the key issues identified a full decade ago are still at the fore of the more recent budgets. Some of those issues were the imperative to reduce our dependence on the energy sector; the constant push to upgrade our infrastructure; the demand for more resources dedicated to national security and of course, the repeated statements about this or that program to reduce white-collar crime.
These expenditure and revenue figures were drawn from the Budget Statements, so no account has been taken of either actual outcomes or supplemental appropriations – this is the process used by the Government to obtain authorisation from the Parliament to exceed the approved spending limits in the national budget.
Clearly, we are seeing a trend as to the constant increases in expenditure, with only one decline, in 2010. Given that background, it also appears that surpluses are rare, occurring only twice, in 2006 and 2009.
The reality that we are on the verge of a national election which is sure to be strongly-contested, leaves me in little doubt that the 2015 budget is also likely to be a deficit budget, with the State spending more than it earns.
There is a constant stream of allegations of ‘Grand Corruption’, which is little surprise in our society in which an unsupported allegation is so often used to discredit an opponent. There is no comfort to be had in that observation, since the other reality is that thorough investigations and prosecutions are only done against ones political enemies, inside or outside the ruling party. That is the sobering reality in our Republic, in which we should all enjoy equal rights and be held to common standards. Different strokes for different folks, just like back in the ‘bad-old-days‘.
It seems to me that the defining question, in terms of whether the various financial crimes are taken seriously, is whether the accused persons are ‘members in good standing‘, so to speak.
The extent to which our Treasury is protected from being plundered by criminal elements is a serious question which should concern every citizen, given that the Public Money in the Treasury belongs to us as citizens and taxpayers. The frequency with which these financial crimes are overlooked is nothing less than scandalous, as any of the Auditor General’s Reports in the previous decade would attest. Permanent Secretaries approving payments in breach of financial regulations; payments made with no documents (leases, contracts or agreements) on file; failure or refusal to produce documents as required by law upon the Auditor General’s request and so many other types of lawbreaking. The same types of conduct is also rife in State Enterprises, which is why so many of the larger ones are unable to produce accounts as required by the very Ministry of Finance which sets those rules and continues to fund them.
The wicked part is that these Public Officials are virtually never charged with breaking the law or made to face any other serious consequences for their misbehaviour in Public Office. We need a new beginning in terms of how we handle the reality of our country’s wealth and its intentionally-degraded laws for controlling how our Public Money is used. A big part of that would be a political dispensation in which full investigations and prosecutions were the norm, especially when key members of the ruling party are the target of allegations.
Our budgeting process now shows all the signs that our system of Public Financial Management is ineffective in dealing with the seasoned criminals who are hard at work helping themselves to our money, whatever the political party in power. At that level, at least, there is little evidence of discrimination.
The growing complexity of the budget is of no comfort. For example, the 2014 documents totalled some 2,997 pages, yet the Billion-Dollar-Plus Beetham Water Recycling Project (BWRP) was omitted. Despite questions as to what did he know and when did he know it, the Minister of Finance continues to ignore the fundamental requirement to provide for this huge project within our national accounts. There has been no attempt to give the public the necessary explanation as to how the BWRP is to be paid for, since the underlying commercial arrangements which are driving this project remain obscured. The BWRP also shows a strong theme as to the privatisation of our nation’s water supplies, which is a growing area of concern globally. Not the first one, it is true, since we had DESALCOTT before, but this second, huge project implies a trend, in my mind.
The inescapable question is ‘To what extent can we rely on our national accounts, if huge projects like BWRP are omitted?‘
All of which brings us to the continuing and unexplained delay in passing the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill. That new law would play an important part in greatly reducing the scope for waste and theft of Public Money. The JCC and its Kindred Associations in the Private Sector Civil Society group continue to call for this law to be passed without any further delay.
Of course all of this is driven by the political parties’ imperative to raise money from various financiers to fund election campaigns, so Political Party Financing laws are essential to control those influences. The Parliament recently unanimously approved a Private Members’ Motion laid by Independent Senator, Helen Drayton, to appoint a Joint Select Committee (JSC) to start the long-overdue process of agreeing just what are the new laws we need to deal with this influence, described by President Carmona, in his inaugural address as a ‘veritable juggernaut‘. The JCC continues to call for the JSC to be appointed so that this critical work can be started to control Political Party Financing.
Having observed the two-week spectacle of prolonged debate in the Parliament on the recently-approved Constitutional Amendment Bill, one can only wonder as to the priorities which are being displayed.