Deconstructing the budget debate

House Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George - Courtesy the Office of T&T Parliament
House Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George - Courtesy the Office of T&T Parliament

LAST week saw another budget debate come to a close, and with the wide scope parliamentarians are given, the contributions focused not only on what was contained in the 2020/2021 fiscal package but pretty much every other issue under the sun.

Sunday Newsday looks back at some of the high and low points of the debate as it veered far from the presentation of Finance Minister Colm Imbert.

Of cars and caps

One of the biggest items of national discussion arose from the Government and the Opposition actually agreeing on something for a change. Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar suggested government MPs take a five per cent pay cut, in solidarity with citizens suffering economically during the covid19 pandemic, and also put a cap on tax concessions for vehicles for parliamentarians (and other office holders).

While the first suggestion was ignored, the second was not, and the Prime Minister in his contribution said Cabinet would consider capping the tax exemptions for the new vehicles by public office-holders at $350,000 for all except judges, whose existing tax breaks will remain untouched.

But Finance Minister Colm Imbert did clap back at Persad-Bissessar and described the call for a cap on tax breaks as hypocrisy on the UNC's part, as Pointe-a-Pierre MP David Lee had bought a Mercedes-Benz valued at $2.3 million, which meant $1.4 million worth of tax and duty concessions.

He also noted Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal said he would surrender his new-vehicle tax privileges if the government MPs would do the same. Imbert pointed out, however, that Moonilal had bought a Jaguar and a Mercedes-Benz within the last three years on a salary of just $17,000 a month, and with no other obvious source of income.

Be my echo

A number of opposition MPs took to echoing statements from the Opposition Leader's presentation. New Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein echoed her concern about "illegal procedures" for property valuations such as stamp duty and curbside valuations.

And a number of MPs echoed her catchphrases "the economy crashed before covid" and "PNM means 'Promises Never Materialise.'"

The MPs also echoed her call for a forensic audit of the billions spent on covid19 relief, as their various constituents have complained of not receiving any assistance.

Water more than flour

One issue that stirred up some debate was when Imbert mentioned tariff reviews for the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and the TT Electricity Commission (T&TEC).

Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales confirmed a water rate review is coming, as this country's water bills are among the lowest in the world.

But new Caroni Central MP Arnold Ram asked whether Government is seeking to usurp the role of the Regulated Industries Commission (RIC) in possible changes in water and electricity rates. He stressed Government cannot instruct the RIC to change water or electricity rates.

But can you prove it?

Government MPs Foster Cummings, Stuart Young and Camille Robinson-Regis. - Courtesy the Office of T&T Parliament

And what is a budget debate without unsubstantiated allegations?

We had Dr Rowley getting in on the action when he claimed the UNC wants to grant Tobago independence, as it sees the two Tobago parliamentary seats as a hindrance.

We also had Moonilal claiming Government was seeking to "privatise justice" to prosecute its political opponents. He claimed the Opposition was told that six UK investigators were made local SRPs wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to say former People's Partnership ministers were their priority.

And there was also Couva North MP Rudranath Indarsingh claiming that Government favoured a Chinese firm to take over the running of the Port of Port of Spain and a French firm was interested as well. Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan said he had no knowledge of that.

Opposition MPs Khadijah Ameen and Saddam Hosein. - Courtesy the Office of T&T Parliament

Not to be left out, Naparima MP Rodney Charles repeated his claim of 100,000 Venezuelans in TT, saying "some estimate" this number, without saying who the "some" are.

Sigh of relief

Unsurprisingly a number of ministers spoke of support provided to citizens. Social Development Minister Donna Cox said her ministry has assisted over 170,000 citizens with grants during the covid19 pandemic, at a cost of $329,600,240.

Minister in the Ministry of Finance Brian Manning listed the social assistance given to citizens to help cope with the lockdown during the pandemic, including $129 million in salary relief grants, $17 million in food cards, $16 million in rental assistance and $6.3 million in food vouchers.

And Foreign and Caricom Affairs Minister Dr Amery Browne reported more than US$250,000 had been given to 298 stranded nationals through five overseas missions between August and September.

Wheel and come again

A couple of new MPs had to figuratively eat their words during the past week. New Moruga/Tableland MP Michelle Benjamin, during her contribution, claimed that people in her constituency were misled about the decriminalisation of marijuana, with some being charged for having amounts which are permissible by law.

"This is deception of the highest order."

After Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis complained, Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George told Benjamin to withdraw her claim. She complied.

Oropouche West MP Davendranath Tancoo was asked withdraw multiple statements. When he said the policies in the 2020 budget were meant to favour Government's friends, families and financiers, and to "bludgeon" the middle class into poverty, Robinson-Regis stood on standing order 48:6 (imputing improper motives) and the Speaker asked Tancoo to withdraw, which he did.

When he accused Government of "enriching vested interested groups," Robinson-Regis rose again and Tancoo had to withdraw again.

Then when he asked whether the "destruction of the economy was engineered to favour vested interests." Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh stood in protest...and Tancoo had to withdraw yet again.

Better than that

Former senator and new St Augustine MP Khadijah Ameen found herself in hot water with the Speaker on two occasions for the same thing – posts on social media which appeared to question the impartiality of the Speaker.

And Youth Development Minister Fitzgerald Hinds also engaged in some questionable behaviour during his contribution when he had some words for the young MPs on the Opposition bench. He told Hosein he would not associate with the type of people that Hosein would,
and noted Chaguanas East MP Vandana Mohit in her contribution said the PNM "scraped" its way into Government with 22 seats.

"That, coming from the member for Chaguanas East, can only be described as a naked untruth."

While Hinds' comments to Hosein may have been a bit vague, his comment to Mohit seems like a low blow about an incident last December when explicit photos circulated on social media allegedly of Mohit, then Chaguanas mayor. It would seem Hinds was continuing in the trend of former Diego Martin Central MP Darryl Smith when he referred to Princes Town MP Barry Padarath as the member for "Princess Town."

Padarath, in his contribution, said Hosein and Mohit were the two youngest MPs in the Parliament, and he would have expected Hinds to lift up young people in this country, but instead he "scandalised" them and made derogatory remarks.

No laughing matter

The budget was also a time for some very sobering statistics. Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon reported more than $2 billion was spent to import cereals, fruits and vegetables last year.

Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for Gender and Child Affairs Ayanna Webster-Roy announced 4,000 child abuse cases reported to the Children's Authority in 2019, including a large number of cases of sexual abuse.

Labour Minister Stephen Mc Clashie announced 2,262 retrenchment notices were received from January to October, but speculated there could be more.

But in some good news, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan reported that since the May 26 amendments to the Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act which allowed for a demerit points system, a new traffic ticketing fixed-penalty system and a red-light camera enforcement system, up to September 20 there had been a 22 per cent decrease in fatal road accidents and a 29 per cent decrease in road deaths compared to last year.

But it was not all good news. as he also reported as of September 21 there had been 235 suspensions and disqualifications. commenting, β€œIt is rather unfortunate that drivers continue to defy the traffic laws.”

The budget has now gone to the Standing Finance Committee, with debate in the Senate scheduled to begin next week. And who knows what surpises that will hold?


"Deconstructing the budget debate"

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