Church senator supports Barrows budget, but raises concerns over debt and deficit
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Mar. 27, 2017–The Barrow administration may need to do some rethinking of the 2017-2018 national budget despite receiving majority support in Parliament on Friday and in the Senate today, when Church senator, Pastor Ashley Rocke, tipped the vote in favor of the new budget, saving the day for the ruling United Democratic Party, which now holds a minority of 6 out of 13 seats in the Senate with the installation of the 13th Senator, who gave the budget “a thumbs down” during today’s budget debate.
At around 7:30 tonight, the trade unions, private sector and NGO community voted against the budget, and so did the Opposition People’s United Party, for 6 votes against the budget. It was Rocke’s “yes” vote—the seventh in favor—which secured the passage of the budget.
Whereas the Opposition People’s United Party has been unabashed in condemning the Barrow budget, the social partners have been silent, at least until today, when for the first time since the national budget for the fiscal year 2017/2018 was tabled in the House of Representatives on Monday, March 13, they had their say on the Government’s austerity budget, new tax measures to yield $80 million more in revenues, the proposal to sell $15 million worth of Government shares in Belize Electricity Limited to the Belize Social Security Board and the recent renegotiation of the billion-dollar super bond.
These were the weighty matters upon which Senators deliberated and debated today. As we go to press this evening, the Senate is still meeting in Belmopan, but what is clear is that the social partners are gravely concerned about the current state of the Belizean economy, despite assertions by the ruling party that the economy is “bouncing back.”
Osmany Salas, Senator for the NGO community, the newest addition to the upper house of Parliament, described the preparation of the budget as “shoddy,” pointing to “a lot of the glaring omissions and inaccuracies.” He voted against the budget tonight.
In addressing why the Belizean economy is “in a dire situation,” he said that this has a direct bearing on the budget being debated today.
“We are losing millions upon millions of dollars that should be going into the Government coffers… The country is in a financial quandary, brought about by policies and decisions that did not have the best interest of Belizeans in mind,” Salas said.
He then pointed to “a culture of corruption” as the reason why “we are in a horrible bind!”
“The two major political parties shoulder the blame and the responsibility. I hope that the Government, together with the Opposition, will work together to get us out of this situation,” he charged.
“After all the unprecedented spending and borrowing, who has benefited?” questioned Senator Mark Lizarraga, representative of the business community.
“We are on the brink of an economic disaster and crisis if we cannot control Government’s spending, waste and abuse… Are we three times better off today than we were before the tripling of our debt?” Lizarraga questioned, calling for serious attention to cost-cutting measures as well a delay in the implementation of bills to raise a further $80 million in taxes.
In his presentation on the budget, Church Senator, Pastor Ashley Rocke, pointed to comments recently made by Professor Densil Williams, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Planning) of the University of the West Indies, in an interview with News 5.
In commenting on the national budget, Williams pointed to the rise in Belize’s debt-to-GDP ratio, nearing 100%, which he described as “very troubled territory” – although Belize’s situation is not as grave as Jamaica’s.
“You have to also do something about the public wage bill. What I’ve seen from the numbers, I think your wage bill accounts for about roughly fifty-four percent of your recurrent revenue – that’s a lot, actually; in Jamaica’s case it’s roughly twenty-six percent. So you have to look at your wage bill in a more serious way,” Rocke recalled Williams saying.
Rocke told the Senate that over 14,000 people are employed by the Government of Belize, and reducing the wage bill would mean shrinking the public sector workforce.
“The church is happy that this is not the case, as seen in the budget,” Rocke said, but he cautioned that the government needs to address the growing problem.
Senator Elena Smith, representative for the trade unions and civil society, said: “It is our duty and our obligation to ensure that the Government uses its resources responsibly. If we are saying that we are going out there to collect… so the Government can have more to spend, then we must use what we collect responsibly.”
The teacher of 31 years addressed budgetary allocations for education, and pointed out that there is zero allocation in the budget for “violence prevention,” and a lack of resources specifically allocated under a plan of action to strengthen the role of women, to increase their participation, engagement and leadership in their communities despite the reading of the budget in what is known as Women’s Month.
She also pointed out that there were some sections of the budget where the numbers were not adding up, and she urged that what is incomplete in the budget should be fixed before it is brought back to Parliament for passage.
Whereas Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow said at the close of the House debate Friday night that the nationalization of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) will more than pay for itself, Senator Lizarraga said that it is worrisome to see that the Government has invested $557 million, and counting, in Belize Telemedia Limited, and over $100 million in the Belize Electricity Limited, “and if we look at the budget book, page 21… of the estimates, we will see that where last year it was projected that BTL will have returns through dividends of $10 million… this year, we are seeing that both investment in BTL and BEL will only be yielding $10 million. That warrants some serious explanation,” he went on to say.
Lizarraga asked: “…where is the return on our investment?” he said that if the Government is realizing $10 million now, after having invested close to $700 million, “we will never ever finish paying for these utilities…?”
Lizarraga said that with the presentation of the new budget, the debt is at $3.15 billion and counting, with Government now passing legislation to borrow more.