IN UNVEILING a near $52 billion budget that contained goodies for our most vulnerable – the small man – balanced by the continuation of sober fiscal adjustments, Finance Minister Colm Imbert looked to the future. With as many as three elections looming, his was a “red and ready” presentation which sent a signal to the electorate.
“The prospects for the future are bright,” Imbert declared. “We have turned the economy around.”
The minister provided what he hoped would be persuasive evidence behind his boast. But Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar was not at all impressed, referring to his presentation as a “palance” budget, quoting a popular soca hit. But doing it his party’s way, Imbert cited a projected return to economic growth at 1.9 percent, record-low inflation, growth in the energy sector, reduced levels of public expenditure, increased revenue in both the oil and non-oil sectors, a Heritage and Stabilisation Fund now at US$6 billion, successful interventions by the Central Bank on the foreign exchange situation, and no recourse to the IMF.
But the minister also clearly understood these figures mean little if they do not reflect the realities on the ground. With citizens demanding action on crime, he unveiled a suite of measures. The Police Service is to be fully computerised, there is to be a new operations centre to allow better real-time co-ordination, laptops are to be deployed in patrols and at police stations, drones are to be used to provide support, body cameras are to be fully implemented and officers are to be authorised to carry non-lethal weapons. And citizens are to be rewarded handsomely for providing tips to Crime Stoppers. Any information which leads to the prosecution of the 25 most wanted criminals in the country will result in payment of a $100,000 bounty.
Elsewhere, the budget’s goodies included increases to the food card programme, the disability grant, the public assistance grant, a new $6,000 cap on senior citizens’ pensions, a programme of low-cost housing, the provision of 24-hour health centres in rural areas, and projects that will boost employment, especially in Tobago.
But it was not all blue skies as Imbert noted efforts at deregulating the market with regard to fuels. The fuel subsidy will be reduced but in relation to super, as opposed to diesel, a measure which the minister said will shield commuters as well as distributors of goods. While this will affect the pockets of some citizens – a dollar increase per litre of super – it is to be noted that the intention to entirely eliminate the fuel subsidy was announced a long time ago and, in fact, the State has held back from an original implementation date of 2018.
Regarding the much-anticipated topic of Petrotrin, Imbert did not have time to shed any fresh light on measures to safeguard the interests of soon-to-be-retrenched workers. This missed opportunity will hopefully be addressed in the coming days.
Overall, budget 2019 was a balanced, steady presentation indicative of an administration that is clearly confident of its record and that has plans for the future. Imbert said the specifics of those plans would be outlined during the debate beginning on Friday by his colleagues holding relevant portfolios. One cannot but expect outlines that will further seek to get the population’s vote.