Legislature Approves Draft Revenue and Expenditure Estimates

Legislature Approves Draft Revenue and Expenditure Estimates

Tonight we can tell you that the proposed Draft Revenue and Expenditure Estimates has been approved by the legislature.  The Senate convened today for six hours and twenty-three minutes in Belmopan.  The highlight of the agenda was the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.  Starting the debate was Senator for Government Business, Eamon Courtenay.  His 26-minute presentation looked at particular sectors where the budget allocations are hefty and necessary, including health and education.  For the most part, however, Courtenay harped on the country’s economic improvements, saying this new budget will facilitate further growth.

Eamon Courtenay, Senator, Leader of Government Business: “Madam President, I rise to move a second reading of a bill for an act to appropriate certain sums of money for the use of the public service of Belize for the financial year ending March 31, 2025. Madam President, as you can imagine, I rise to support this bill, the General Revenue Appropriation Bill 2024-2025. We on the government bench will do so with pride, Madam President, for no other reason than that the economic performance for the fiscal year 2023-2024 was by any measure stellar. The performance of the Belizean economy has been certified by the International Monetary Fund and other respective international economic monitors. According to the IMF, Madam President Belize the economic economy expanded by 4.5 percent. And if you take a measure of the growth over the last three years and the post-COVID recovery period, the average is 10.4 percent. Last year, real GDP grew by 16 percent above pandemic levels. Unemployment declined from 14% in 2020 to 3.4% in 2023. Our Belizean people, Madam President, are proudly at work in record numbers. The IMF statement reports that the public debt now stands at 66% of GDP and this, Madam President, has been a reduction by more than half by the industrious and creative work of the government led by Prime Minister Briceno.”

Further into his presentation, Senator Courtenay explained the amounts being allotted for specific areas, detailing the importance of each investment.

Eamon Courtenay, Senator, Leader of Government Business:  “As the Prime Minister explained, and this is important, Madam President, $0.30 of every dollar will go to wages for public officers. $0.07 of every dollar for public officers’ pensions. $0.18 of every dollar for operational costs of the government, such as utilities and transportation. And $0.07 for interest on loans. That leaves $0.27 for capital, expenditure and investment to build a better Belize. Therefore, $0.73 of every dollar simply keeps the machinery of government running, and it is only $0.27 that is available for building Belize. Madam President it is in that context that we have to make efforts, as was made by Senator Coye, in accessing concessional financing in order to make the ambitious plans of Plan Belize possible. I will now turn very briefly to the capital projects, or at least some of the capital projects that are expected to be undertaken in the upcoming fiscal year. And, Madam President, as the Prime Minister emphasized, and as this government will always emphasize, health and education, the Belizean people are at the center of the capital expenditure program of the Briceno administration. $35 million will be used to fund an expansion of NHI. $21 million to help fund the growing payables related to land acquisitions undertaken by the previous United Democratic Party government. Madam President, $10 million will be used to repair and maintain our major highways, and $6 million for low-income homes and housing. $6 million for upgrading of rural roads and bridges, $3 million for village streets, $7 million for upgrading of streets in cities and towns, and $4 million for the anti-violence program, $1 million for additional equipment for the police department, and $2.7 million for agricultural and sugar roads. Madam President, this is just to highlight a few of the new programs and projects that will be undertaken in the coming fiscal year. $430.7 million is being allocated for capital spending in the fiscal year and Madam President, we say again, we inherited are run down physical stock of government schools, government hospitals and government buildings, government roads and bridges across the breadth of this country and we have had to find money to build and restore many buildings and many pieces of our infrastructure. At the same time, we have come in with an ambitious plan to make Belize better by improving the the country by allowing low-cost housing, by increasing the healthcare sector performance. All of those things require capital expenditure and as I indicated we only have 27 cents out of each dollar to achieve these things.”

Following Courtenay was the Senator for the private sector, Kevin Herrera.  He touched on various concerns over the budget including the amount allocated for the agricultural sector.  According to Herrera, he anticipated a greater amount for this sector considering the losses experienced due to drought in the last year.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the presentation had to do with the lack of accountability that Senator Herrera says continues to be an issue across administrations.

Kevin Herrera, Senator, Business Community: “In my opinion, and this is where the Auditor General would state her overall opinion on the financial statements and the reliability of those statements. And she says, “in my opinion, the financial statements do not give a true and fair view of the government’s financial position as of March 31, 2015.” Again, what this is, Madam President, is this is really a disclaimer. They’re saying that nothing can be relied on the information that is being generated in the government system. This is a very serious state of affair. Madam President, for a long time, the talk was all about the Auditor General not doing his or her work. We felt that if we could strengthen that department, that area, that we would be able to get audits in a timely manner. While that is important, it really only gives half the problem. What really became clear to us at the Joint Public Accounts Committee, Madam President, is that the real problem is more upstream. The Auditor General cannot audit accounts if the accounts are not being prepared by the Accountant General. And this is the case. The accounts are woefully late. So late that… the last one, like I mentioned, was 2014-2015. The accountant general reports to the financial secretary, and the Financial Secretary reports to the Minister of Finance, who is normally the prime minister. This is the source of the delay. So we have a budget that is today, that if today is an indication of what will happen what is spent this coming year can, if this trend continues, be audited 10 years from now. This is completely unacceptable, Madam President. And so I’m saying that we owe a lot more to the taxpayers in this country in terms of accounting for the funds that we spend. Yes, we have the budget today that goes through the process of approval but we need to account for those monies so that we know, so that everybody in this country know that we’re getting value for the monies we spend. Madam President, before our detractors come at us, let me state that yes J-PAC is to review the annual reports of the Auditor General. This we have done and continue to do so. And I must commend the Prime Minister in terms of expanding what was then the Public Accounts Committee to the Joint Public Accounts Committee because now it is functioning. We are meeting and we are reviewing the statements but there is only so much we can do, Madam President. We cannot review what is not before us. The Accountant General cannot audit statements if they are not presented by the Accountant General. So we can’t review what is not there. The last one, as I said, was 2014-2015. Neither do we control the Accountant General, she reports to the Financial Secretary. We have had many meetings with the Accountant General, the Auditor General, the Financial Secretary. However, those responsible must do their jobs. As we speak on this 26th day of March, Madam President, in three months’ time we should have had the accounts for this current year that we’re completing right now at the end of March 31st, because the Accountant General has three months to finish that work. But no, like I said, it’s ten years behind. And this is required under the Finance and Audit Reform Act of 2005. I think it’s part 3, section 5.1. I say all that to say, Madam President, that this budget and all budgets before have a dark side. There’s a shadow hanging over these budgets. There’s a built-in efficiency to get budgets approved but none to account for them with the efficiency that we see in terms of the presentation of the budget.”

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