General — 22 March 2007 — by Adele Ramos
On Tuesday at the meeting of the Senate in Belmopan, the unthinkable happened. The $765 million national budget was passed without even being debated by the Senators who have been entrusted with the responsibility of steering the nation’s business—a notable anomaly since just about every other item on the day’s agenda was discussed, some matters even at great length.
Senator Godwin Hulse, who represents the business community in the Senate, said this was the first time in history that the budget had been passed without debate. Hulse expressed shock that at the time when he chose to go use the restroom, the time came for the budget debate and none of his colleagues rose to speak.
“I am really surprised that you all allowed the budget to slip through without debate, but so be it, and the next time I shall not go to the bathroom when this is coming up or take that risk. It was just unbelievable,” Senator Hulse expressed.
He said that they were ambushed on the budget debate because the reading of the bill for the budget was fast-tracked, and perhaps his colleagues did not realize what was happening. Senator Rene Gomez, who represents the trade unions in the Senate, said he was caught off-guard.
The Senators were also chastised by Senator Eamon Courtenay, who represents the ruling People’s United Party. The onus for triggering debate on the budget, really, falls on those not aligned with the ruling party, and Senator Courtenay chastised them for “shirking” their responsibility.
“It is remarkable, it is scandalous, it is disgraceful, that the budget of this country came before this Senate, representatives of the Opposition paid for by the taxpayers’ money sat here and said not a word and now they come and talk about wanting new managers. If you cannot debate a budget, you cannot run a country,” Courtenay said in responding to a statement from an Opposition, United Democratic Party, member.
UDP Senator, Hon. Diego Bol, said, what’s the use of debating, because the ruling party does as it pleases with the money anyways. He cited the fact that the Senate was also being presented with a supplementary appropriation bill to cover overspending for three years.
Bol said that the members of the House had already spent hours debating the budget.
“If we would have again spent hours and hours debating the budget this afternoon, for the government, it would mean nada,” Bol stated, adding that even the budgets that had been approved for previous years had not been adhered to.
Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Hon. Dickie Bradley, said that both the ruling Musa administration and the Opposition, United Democratic Party (UDP), are guilty of overspending and putting late supplementary bills before the National Assembly. He quoted figures from as far back as 1993, the start of the last UDP administration, showing that they asked for supplementary spending money of $31 million for 1993/1994; $36 million for 1994/1995; $22.8 million for 1995/1996; and $37.9 million for 1996/1997.
“There is an unhappy trend under both governments in relation to this matter,” Bradley commented, adding that an attempt must be made to bring public spending under control. He said that the supplementary bills should be presented as soon as possible.
At the end of the day a majority in the Senate endorsed all money bills, including the 2007/2008 budget.
As we have reported in our mid-week issue, the total supplementary spending for 2004-2007 approved to date, with those approved at the Senate on Tuesday, now amount to roughly $300 million. Yesterday’s bill accounted for $250 million, but in April 2004 a supplementary bill was approved for an additional $47.5 million for debt payments in the 2004/2005 budget year. Yesterday, Government asked legislators to approve $150 million more for 2004/2005—and this is despite claims by Government in late 2004 that it would have taken measures to slash spending in the budget by reducing recurrent spending by 5% and capital spending by $30 million. Instead, there were increases in both areas of the budget.
The Senate also approved $83.6 million in overspending for 2005/2006, and a further $14.3 million for 2006/2007.
Senator Hulse said that under the law, there are three conditions that have to be met for Government to spend more than the amounts approved for the national budget. Those conditions are that the spending was urgent, unforeseen, and cannot, without serious injury to public interest, be postponed until the next meeting of the House of Representatives.
He furthermore explained that even where urgent spending has to be made above approved limits, the law requires that the spending should be tabled before the House at the next meeting practicable.
Senator Gomez reiterated that supplementary bills ought to come in “urgent and extreme need.” He said that he will not blame public officers, who process the payment documents, but caution them that whenever they are given orders or recommendations, they should get them in writing, and no Minister or chief executive officer can hold them accountable.
He also said that there is a need to ensure that the Auditor General and the Accountant General are doing their work.
Senator Courtenay said that it is public officers who control public funds, and if allegations are made of fraud and mismanagement, it is public officers that are being attacked.
Another major issue that was raised was the reliability of the numbers presented, since, as Senator Hulse pointed out, there has been no full audit of the Government’s accounts for several years. Hulse said that the numbers they were discussing could not be reconciled, since “…a lot of the numbers just don’t add up.”
Government has spent more than budgeted, has not audited, and has not followed the regulations as they are laid down, Senator Hulse further commented.
He expressed the wish that the Public Accounts Committee, led by the Opposition UDP, would do its work, as the public must know how their money is being spent.
Senator Hulse pointed out that there is no indication where the money came from for all the extra spending that Government did, whether it was from tax collections, loans, grants or the sale of public assets.
Under recent revisions of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, the Government must now get legislative approval to dispose of any asset valued above the $2 million threshold.
Two such asset sales were tabled before the Senate Tuesday: the sale of a soy bean facility to Nutrisoya, a Belizean company, for BZ$9.75 million, and the sale of the former Libertad Sugar Factory, Santa Cruz Lodge and 2,000 acres of affiliated agricultural lands for US$1.2 million.
It was the latter that was the subject of extensive discussion in the House, and Senator Hulse asked that the Libertad factory asset sale to the Panamanian company, Mercosult S.A., whose principal is former Intelco investor, Alfredo Oranges, be sent to committee for further review.
Senator Hulse said that a company, Texanol, had contacted him, as the Senator for the business community, about its tender for the Libertad assets being rejected, when they had made an offer well above the current sale price.
According to Senator Hulse, Texanol LLC offered US$2.75 million for the land and US$3.5 million for the entire package.
“They would not have gone through all this trouble if they were not serious about their offer,” he added.
Senator Hulse questioned whether the contractor general and the tenders committee had seen Texanol’s bid, and asked that the matter be reviewed before a vote is taken in the Senate.
“It would serve the purpose of transparency for this matter to go to committee for review before we go to vote. The matter is a little too overwhelming,” said PUP Senator Anthony Chanona.
We understand that GOB’s financial advisor, Joe Waight, offered an explanation to Senators, saying that the Texanol proposal was not satisfactory to Government because it was only two pages long. Texanol had reportedly asked for more time to submit further details, but Government did not grant an extension. With that said, the matter returned to the Senate for a vote and the sale to Merconsult was approved.
The Senate also approved $2.3 million for charities for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2008, a legal aid bill, and an amendment to the Marriage Act that would allow tourists who visit Belize for less than three days to get married in Belize.
There were also two CDB loans approved – one for $25 million for the upgrade of the Placencia road, and another for $50 million to correct fiscal and external imbalances.