IN THE HYPE that usually attends a budget statement, especially with three elections scheduled for the year ahead, this fifth budget of the PNM administration stood to attract the scorn of the Opposition who was already alluding to an election budget, and a condensed milk budget, for all the goodies and sweetness it anticipated the Government would provide to woo the electorate. But after three hours and 30 minutes of Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, they settled for a Hansel and Gretel budget referring to their claimed boredom with the length.
But the Finance Minister was his usual detailed self, titling the statement “Stability, Strength and Growth.” It was the second budget that was presented since the National Development Strategy as outlined in the Vision 2030 document was laid in Parliament.
The minister indicated that the transformation was now being anchored by this document. Only as we study the budget details and pay attention to the debate will we truly know how much of the budget is actually anchored by that national development strategy.
The minister identified in detail some direct people-oriented programmes and projects the administration initiated and are now nearing completion, such as investment in our tourism infrastructure, health institutions like the hospital developments in Arima, Point Fortin, Sangre Grande, Port of Spain General: central block, Couva Medical and Multi-Training Facility, the Roxborough Hospital, and the St James Medical Complex. Many other projects that are about to start or will start before the next election were outlined.
Hints of an election budget? But one wonders if there are sufficient resources available to get these projects underway before people assess the Government at the polls.
The population would have been glad to hear that agriculture will be tax-free. Hopefully this will redound to lower food prices. People who were born in TT and possess computerised birth certificates no longer have to get life certificates. The minimum wage will now be $17.50 per hour, up from $15 per hour. There are increases now to $5,000 from $3,000 for importation in personal allowance at airports, incentives to creative industries, wages of CEPEP and URP workers being increased by 15.0 per cent.
But there are issues that remain hanging and hopefully will be cleared up in the debate beginning on Friday. For instance, the Central Bank from its data centre recorded the net official reserves in July this year at US$6.8 billion. The minister did not offer a plan to address the growing concern of falling reserves or shortage of foreign exchange. Shouldn’t there be a plan after the reserves dipped below US$7 billion? At what point would a plan, a strategy, or a revision of the open capital account be undertaken? None of the Government’s programmes, our business or personal needs would be possible without foreign currency.
Then there is the pressing matter of getting the non-energy sector to grow, increasing the tax uptake, generating more exports, increasing foreign exchange earnings, and generating more jobs. This has been a need for the last four years. Is it realistic to expect any change now?
One major criticism of yesterday’s presentation is the lack of empirical evidence to back up a lot of the statements made. No doubt this will make the debate even more interesting.