The 2019/2020 budget debate got underway, ten days after it was presented by Prime Minster Dean Barrow. Today the opposition had much to object to. Leader of the opposition John Briceno called it a “kick back budget” saying it is not focused on the people of Belize but more on roundabouts and roads. Briceno went on to explain that the budget won’t meet the needs of the nation, the productive sector and nor would it generate new jobs as the Barrow administration is seeking to spend some 70 million dollars more than last year and collect close to 43 million dollars more in taxes than last year from people.
Hon. John Briceno, Opposition Leader: “It took some boldness, or maybe madness for the Prime Minister to boast about a 3% economic growth- growth that was driven by large borrowing and that is nothing to celebrate in the general grand scheme of things. A figure tha on the face of it is questionable since it does not reflect the fact that our population grew by 2.8% and also a figure that is not in line with the growth numbers projected by the IMF. The IMF projected GDP growth of 2.2% which is closer to the prediction by the Central Bank of Belize. I cannot understand how the Prime Minister and his reporting agencies can claim that inflation is as low as 0.3%. Think about it. We are a country that imported close to a billion dollars last year, mostly from the United States, do you know what the inflation rate for the US is for this same period ? 1.5% and the PM claims 0.3%. With the highest cost of fuel in the region how can the Prime Minister possibly say inflation is less than 1%? Ask any Belizean who goes to the store to buy groceries if the cost of goods and services is going up and hear what they will say. I will give another example. Last year the Prime Minister introduced GST on data which everyone would agree is now a necessity in Belize. For sure the cost of data has gone up by 12.5% and yet according to the PM there was little to no inflation. Did we not recently raise the cost of electricity not once but twice? How can the cost of these basic things be rising and salaries and the minimum wage remain the same and yet we have almost no inflation? This Barrow UDP administration again increased taxes so that the combined taxes on goods and services is now 14.5% and he will tell you no inflation. And when it comes to the tax on fuel, when this Barrow UDP administration continues to suck from Belizean consumers, so much so that already this year government has changed the cost of fuel six times. Three months, six times. So the pronouncement that there will be no new taxes is yet another big fat lie. He boasts of 156,000 Belizeans in the work force and did not pause for a second to talk about the 16,000 who got up this morning and went searching for a job and can’t find one. Nor did he say how many of the 156,000 workers are underemployed and not earning enough to properly provide for their families.”
Minister John Saldivar rejected the opposition’s accusations saying Briceno was misinformed.
Hon. John Saldivar, Minister of National Security: “To actually criticize our budget, which I will repeat has no new taxes in it. How can you come and take a budget that doesn’t have any new taxes in it and still lament the fact that revenues have gone up? If revenues have gone up it’s perhaps because we have become more efficient, or because the economy is growing. To say about inflation that these di go up and that di go up and the other di go up I don’t know if he understands how you arrive at your inflation figure but inflation is an average of prices and average means that some went up and others went down but in the general scheme of things it was about 0..%. So you can point to fuel going up. You can point to electricity going up but we can also point as the Prime Minister did, to rice going down, to meat going down, to seafood going down, to cheese going down, there are many items going down that is how you arrive at your inflation rate. So don’t come here and cherry pick and just try to point to those items that the price went up- talk about those items where the prices went down. They don’t seem to understand the importance of transportation and road infrastructure in a country to its development. Any standard economics book will tell you that one of the main roles of government in propelling an economy is through public works, is through public infrastructure and therefore madam speaker… What is the main cause of debt in Belize? Road traffic accidents, and so we have been implementing a road infrastructure program along the lines of road safety with the Caribbean Development Bank and our other partners so that we could bring down the number of deaths that occur on our highways. How can you question that? The prime minister in his presentation revealed that unemployment remained relatively steady with only 1/10 of 1% uptick in 2018 to 9.4% Those numbers may seem unimpressive until we delve deeper into the numbers behind the numbers as it relates to job creation. You see madam speaker between April 2017 and April 2018 over 5,800 jobs were created. However, it did not translate into a decrease in the unemployment rate because 7,100 new persons entered the workforce and were looking for jobs. Madam speaker if we look further into the number of persons who entered into the workforce we will see that according to the Statistical Institute of Belize the newest entry into the workforce occurred in the Toledo district. What is this madam speaker? Have we become a victim of our own success? As persons who have entered the workforce in the Toledo district mostly would be as a result of government providing greater access to education in that district. We have raised the bar, we have increased expectations and more of our Toledo youths are entering the workforce instead of staying at home or in their villages. But to put this unemployment rate into perspective madam speaker I want to cite a few countries with similar challenges like Guyana at 12%, St.Lucia 20%, St.Vincent 18%, Antigua Barbuda 14%. This year’s budget has almost $180 million to be invested in capital projects between cap 2 and 3. We can anticipate more job creation and a decline in the unemployment rate by 2020 and to put this $180 million again in perspective, last year that figure was $157 million- $23 million more in this year’s budget and $26 million more than the last two years. Then when we compare this year’s capital budget to the final year of the last PUP administration in 2007 we see that things had already deteriorated so terribly under the PUP that they were only able to budget $115 million for capital expenditure- compare that to $180 million today, compare to that to his previous criticism about the budget about the GDP growth rates that they were able to generate. So madam speaker we are doing well.”
The budget debate continues tomorrow.