Highlights — 07 April 2018 — by Rowland A. Parks
Senators tackle the 2018-2019 budget in debate

BELMOPAN, Tues. Mar. 27, 2018– The debate in the lower chamber on the government appropriation bill and a number of other bills, continued in the upper house of parliament today, where senators from across the political divide, and the social partners, deliberated before passing the measures into law.

Following some stinging presentations on the government budget by known Senate heavy-hitters such as Opposition PUP senator, Eamon Courtenay, and business community senator, Mark Lizarraga, the NGO senator, Osmany Salas, excoriated it.

Senator Salas took the government to task for its position on crime, and the absence of any meaningful program in the budget to fight it.

The NGO senator said that the kind of community policing being practiced by the Police Department will fail to stop crime. Quoting the sociologist, Dr. Herbert Gayle, Senator Salas said the military method used by our police “will never gain the trust of our youth.” Senator Salas said, “Our military tactics will only make matters worse.”

Only 5 percent of the budget is dedicated to community policing and crime prevention, Senator Salas noted.

Senator Salas also noted that 52 million dollars was budgeted for community policing and crime prevention; however 85 percent of that was for salaries. Senator Salas said there “seemed to be a move” to recruit 500 police yet the budgetary allocation for this sector had been reduced by 4 million. He noted that less than 10 million dollars is budgeted for criminal investigation, and 73 percent of that will be spent on salaries.

Attorney General and Senator, Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, defended the government’s budget and presented a report of his ministry. Senator Peyrefitte said that his ministry filled some key positions during the last fiscal year.

Senator Peyrefitte took umbrage over a query Senator Lizarraga had raised about the job his office was doing.

 “We do a lot of work in the Attorney General’s ministry and Senator Lizarraga owes the good people of the Attorney General’s ministry an apology,” Senator Peyrefitte said.

The Attorney General said that high on the list of what he wants to accomplish, is the law revision project, which, when completed, would allow all citizens of Belize with internet access, to read an updated version of the law online.

The Attorney General also told the Senate that the government is committed to implementing the CCJ Maya land rights ruling. Hon. Peyrefitte said that the AG’s Ministry did not get all that it wanted in the budget, but he supported the budget because “warriors don’t cry.”

Government Senator, Stephen Duncan, who is a banker by profession, did not elaborate on the government’s figures presented in its appropriation bill, but instead focused his presentation on the difference between UDP governments, since 1984, and governments formed by the PUP. Senator Duncan argued that the PUP caused a huge financial mess, and the UDP fixed things.

Senator Elena Smith, the trade union representative, noted that the allocation for the school feeding program has dropped from $61,000 in the last budget, to $8,000 in this year’s budget.

Senator Smith said that the funds available for skills training have also been slashed in this year’s budget. “What we have here is not going to cut it. Back to school program, I see zero here. Nothing allocated there. Reintroduction of CET model, drastic cut, Madam President,” she said.

Senator Smith said she looked at poverty alleviation and found that under Cap 2, there is zero. “Youth Development Program, there has been a decrease, and then a slight increase,” she said. “Restore Belize program went down from $1.1 million, to $800,000. Food Pantry program says zero. Yet when the Minister made his presentation, he spoke of 17,000” she noted.

Senator Smith did a breakdown of the figures to reveal that people on the BOOST program are getting 56 cents per day per person, compared to $12.88 per day that the government spends on citizens in prison. “So it’s better to be in prison?” Senator Smith asked.

“When I look at violence prevention, I see zero,” Senator Smith said.

Senator Smith said that when she read that the government has not built any new houses, she thought that that could be attributed to the Mr. Lamb fiasco, where another minister was suspected of siphoning funds under the guise of building houses for the poor. “No new houses and yet we are alleviating poverty,” Senator Smith remarked.

Senator Smith stressed that we need to grow our economy, that if we don’t we will continue to take care of many persons. “Until we are able to build our human resource, we will continue to be the way we are right now. We need to invest more in education…We need to do more as it relates to our young people,” she said.

Government Senator, Aldo Salazar, said that Senator Lizarraga and the Leader of the Opposition have set off a blistering trail of attacks against the government.

“In these difficult economic times in our region, predictions of doom and gloom, none of that has occurred. Sometimes I think there is a desire for the government to fail,” Senator Salazar said.

Senator Salazar added, “I can drive anywhere in this country and I will see development.”

Senator Salazar also took issue with PUP Senator, Paul Thompson, for saying that this is the highest trade deficit ever. “That is simply not true,” Senator Salazar said.

PUP senator, Valarie Woods, said, “I go to finance, because we are dealing with the budget. So I remember the contributions made last year about what we are doing to collect the arrears in taxes. On Page 65, I kid you not, amount of tax outstanding for two years, 32 million dollars.” Senator Woods said there was no indication whether that figure had been reduced, and by how much. “That is for income tax. If you check this book from last year, it is the exact same thing Mr. President,” she further explained.

Turning to the health sector, Senator Woods said that one hundred percent of the medical facilities are at minimum standard. “The sky is not falling, but the roof of KHMH is falling,” she remarked.

“We saw the spike in violence against women and children from November,” she said, “so I looked at Restore Belize and it jumped out, personnel emoluments, it jumped to $290,855. Then I looked at the staffing. It’s the exact staff. It was at 8, with $12,000…there are so many examples of that throughout this budget.”

In her closing remarks, Senator Woods did not have kind words for the budget debate in the House of Representatives. She described it as, “disgusting behavior.”

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