BELMOPAN, Fri. Apr. 23, 2021– The first speaker on the second day of the 2021-2022 budget debate was Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Cordel Hyde. He delivered a heartfelt speech, rallying the embattled unions to step back temporarily from their resistance against the newly elected PUP government.
He noted that it has been near 15 years since his last budget presentation on the Government side, then he remarked that he had never imagined it would have been such a painful one — one that breaks his heart.
“No government should have to consider taking 80 million dollars out of the salaries of the public officers and teachers of this country — not our beloved teachers and public officers, not out of the hands of the people who spend every day with the little people,” Hyde lamented as he began to recount an early-morning telephone conversation he had with one of his constituents who would be subject to a salary cut. She had called him to describe to him what a woeful financial situation she would be in, as a result of the salary cut, and he had tried to console her by mentioning provisions that would be made to help her, such as the DFC refinancing of mortgages with lower monthly payments, but he wistfully remarked in the House that he felt his response to her was insufficient.
Hyde mentioned that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the people of Belize are immeasurable, and he said that the country cannot continue to add to the unemployment rate of 29.6% in Belize — an unemployment rate which he noted is several percentage points higher than the employment rate in the United States during the Great Depression.
“I also know that we cannot allow the Halloween figure called retrenchment to come visit us — not now, not ever! And yet that’s where we are today, April 23rd, 2021. The experts say if we do nothing there is hell to pay,” Hyde said, in reference to possible IMF measures that include retrenchment and a GST rate as high as 19%. These severe measures, which lurk as a possibility at every corner of the country’s financial path forward, were put in place by a number of Caribbean nations that have had to go to the IMF “hat in hand,” Hyde said.
The Deputy PM implored the unions to give his government a chance, given the desperate situation the country finds itself in.
“I’m asking the unions, I’m asking the teachers and the public officers to give us a chance. If we didn’t believe this was necessary, we wouldn’t be doing this. We gain nothing from doing this other than your wrath and contempt. We know this, but we are in a desperate situation as a country and as a people, and experts are saying that if we do nothing, in a matter of months we can hit the proverbial wall. It’s better for us to do something now and find out a year from now that maybe we went too far, than for us to not do anything and six months down the road we rue the day we never took the 10%,” Hyde pleaded.
He tried his best to assure the teachers and public officers that the government would review the fiscal position of the country along with the unions every six months and every year to determine whether the country’s finances have improved and the salary cuts can be discontinued prior to the end of the three-year period.
“We are not going to keep this any longer than needs be. We will review the numbers every six months along with the unions. We will do it together. We will review it together comprehensively every 12 months to determine whether we have met our targets and can discontinue the adjustments. I assure you, we are not going to keep this any longer than we have to.” Hyde vowed.
Hyde acknowledged that the cuts to the salary of many of these workers will cause hardship and the government will have to put in place facilities in the public to make it easier for those who are struggling to access provisions to help them meet their basic human needs.
“This cut will hurt like hell. But I also know that this government has very limited room to operate, so we have to make sure that the necessary coping mechanisms are in place. We have to ensure that the kids are not sent home because the fees are late and the hospitals are not hounding people for payment, that the utilities are not cutting out people for arrears. If I couldn’t pay before, how will I be able to pay now?” Hyde commented.
He went on to mention that public officers will be able to refinance their mortgages and personal loans with commercial banks, thanks to an extension of the forbearance period of the Central Bank. He also pointed to efforts that will have to be made by the government to ensure that family members and friends and associates of those in power do not unfairly access government resources while public servants are forced to make a sacrifice. He mentioned as well that taxes must be collected from all land owners from whom it is due. Otherwise, those lands will be taken away, he warned. This policy, he said, should apply to all those who own large plots of land and who owe taxes —”without fear or favor” and regardless of their connection to the ruling administration, he said.
He outlined that reasonable dialogue between the unions and the government needs to continue. He said they must reach an agreement and “get this right”, because the alternative — what could happen if they don’t — is something he does not want to think about. He “gets chills” when he contemplates what could happen, he said.
“We need to continue talking to each other, not at each other. Each of us can do more to make this thing work. No one wants their pay cut, no one, absolutely no one. We understand that, and worse you have to suffer through that and you see your government may not be as disciplined as you want them to be. We’ve messed up in certain areas, and we must apologize for that, but we’re human beings with natural imperfections. But the country needs us to get this right. I don’t want to think about the alternative. I get chills when I think about it,” Deputy PM Hyde stated.
Hyde says that it is high time for the implementation of good governance legislation and reform and that the government needs to hire a consultant if needs be, given the apparent shortage of legal draftspersons in the country.
“We need this good governance legislation now: the Whistle-Blowers Act, the unjust enrichment law, the retroactive asset recovery law, campaign financing legislation. These pay cuts cannot be for naught. We must build an edifice of good governance that will ensure that we never come back to this place again.” Hyde said.