Finance Minister Colm Imbert yesterday unveiled incentives for farmers, manufacturers, housing construction and tourism in the 2017-2018 Budget.
Speaking in the House of Representatives, he said the country must diversify its economy, “where we are competitive or have a real chance of success.” He identified agriculture, export manufacturing, housing construction and tourism as some of these sectors. Saying this this not the first time TT has faced and overcome serious economic challenges, he said it was calypsonian Black Stalin who reminds citizens “we can make it if we try.”
Underscoring the importance of reducing TT’s food import bill, Imbert said an agricultural financial support programme will be established, with grants of up to $100,000 for new and existing farmers. This measure takes effect from December 1. Imbert also proposed to amend the Income Tax Act to remove the restriction of 100 acres of land to receive tax exemptions on income from approved agricultural land holdings. This measure takes effect from January 1.
The minister said a new housing construction incentive programme also starts on January 1. This programme will provide a cash incentive of $100,000 to all approved developers who construct housing units in accordance with design, specifications and prices fixed by the Government.
Imbert said Prime Minister Keith Rowley will initially chair a ministerial oversight committee to ensure the success of this programme, explaining this committee will monitor and expedite the process of obtaining building approvals from all regulatory agencies for housing units.
With over 150,000 applications on the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) waiting list, Imbert said the HDC can only build 2,000 houses a year and cannot meet the demand on its own.
He said the maximum reimbursement limit of the TT Hotel and Guest Room Stock Upgrade Programme will be increased from $750,000 to $1.5 million. This means the reimbursement of expenditure on the cost of work per room will increase from 25 to 50 percent.
The minister also said commercial banks have been asked to extend the maturity periods for new loans and refinancing for the tourism sector under this programme from seven to 15 years. This measure takes effect from December 1.
US$ THROUGH EXIM
To allow eligible exporters to access foreign exchange, Imbert said the Central Bank will be requested to license the EximBank as a foreign exchange dealer.
The facility will initially be capitalised at US$100 million and this will be available in fiscal 2018. To qualify, at least 30 percent of a business’ production must be for export.
For existing manufacturers to qualify for this facility, Imbert said, “They must agree to repatriate a suitable amount of their foreign exchange earnings.”
He said Government was able to reduce the construction cost for the Arima Hospital from $1.85 to $1.6 billion. This hospital is expected to be operational in 2019. The Point Fortin Hospital, he said, is scheduled for completion in the second quarter of 2019.
While Government will continue its search for a suitable operator for the Couva Children’s and Adult Hospital, Imbert said the operational costs of all three hospitals will “run into several hundred million dollars.” Noting this hospital should be commissioned next year, he said its annual operating cost is approximately $400 million.
On transportation, Imbert said, “We are removing all restrictions on banded maxi-taxis in order to open up the public transportation system.”
Noting that maxi-taxis operating in different parts of the country are recognised by different colour bands, he said this move will allow all maxi-taxis to operate on all routes in TT. He said this was important against the background of 35,000 vehicles being imported into TT so far for this year.
PENSION COST ROSE
Imbert said the 2017-2018 Public Sector Investment Programme will focus on road infrastructure and other initiatives to ease traffic congestion.
In the social sector, he said a monthly savings of $13.3 million was generated through a rigorous certification of the Financial Assistance Programme for food security. He also said in fiscal 2017, 90,800 senior citizens received pensions at a cost of over $3.4 billion. Of this amount, $139 million was directed to new pensioners added to the system as a result of Government increasing the statutory limit to $4,500 per month for people to qualify for senior citizens’ pension.
He said a new single intake form for all social programmes is improving the timely approval of grants and reducing instances of one individual accessing multiple grants.
Imbert said Government envisaged the Revenue Authority and the Office of Procurement Regulation would be operational next year. On the Authority, he said the legislative requirements are being completed and there will be stakeholder consultation.