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Mar 19, 2009

Opposition Leader calls stimulus plan “smoke and mirrors”…

Story PictureIt is perhaps one of the shortest budget debates and also one that ended on a different note when P.M. Barrow counseled the Leader of the Opposition, John Briceño, to hang in there in the face of alleged challenges to his leadership. This had to do with an early departure from parliament by the members of the Albert and Lake divisions, Mark Espat and Cordel Hyde who did not participate in the 2009-2010 budget debate. While the prime minister had choice words for Espat and Hyde, the afternoon session was not as lively as this morning’s when the debate sparked some high points. It winded down after five this evening.

As is the norm, the first to rise to give his critique of the document was the P.U.P. leader. Briceño posed the question whether the U.D.P. were doing enough to better off the people of Belize and help the poor, sick and unfortunate. Briceño referred to the Prime Minister’s stated challenges, as “excuses for not delivering on his most important promise to the Belizean People, to bring down the cost of living. Calling Barrow’s stimulus plan “smoke and mirrors,” Briceño then made some suggestions of his own for spurring the economy.

John Briceño, Party Leader, P.U.P.
“The Prime Minister listed as excuses two natural disasters, a rapid slump in the world price of petroleum and the economic and financial slowdown in industrial economies. Of course, no one could have predicted the floods and storms, but those collections from the windfall tax, well we warned him about setting the threshold too high, so when the Prime Minister said and I quote: “our much vaunted windfall surcharge never materialized,” I can only respond: “we told you so” or in Spanish “te lo dijimos.”

“It comes therefore as some surprise that in their second budget, we see none of these bold pronouncements about new job creation, no three hundred dollar education grants for second formers, or tuition grant for first year Sixth Formers; indeed no promise of plenty. In fact, not even cheaper corn beef or Vienna sausages, just this broad promise to “ease the discomfort.” At the same time, we were given a list of more of the same projects which were to have been the linchpin for those “rich possibilities” the Prime Minister promised in his last budget presentation. How can Belizeans feel this ease in discomfort when we know that the rate of inflation almost tripled to the highest levels in two decades from 2.3 percent in 2007 to 6.4 percent? And yet there is no rise in the minimum wage, no salary adjustments to meet the rising cost of living and no tax relief to increase the purchasing power of the average Belizean.”

“But Mr. Speaker there is something about this proposed budget that worries me, something that seems to have gone missing from this budget. Perhaps someone will tell us during the debate, but I was wondering how much was the foreign exchange earnings from last year? How much foreign exchange did we take in from tourism, bananas, citrus, papayas, shrimp, and so on? We ask these questions because the prime minister himself admits that there will be a decline in export earnings for 2009 and this will lead to a decline in official reserves. For us this reinforces the need for all those external disbursements to be realized. Our fear is that there is no room for error here, no fallback position because these major foreign exchange earners are projecting significant declines for this year.”

“This January the Prime Minister announced, amid much fanfare, a $200 million stimulus package or capital expenditure, which was supposed to ease the burden on all Belizeans and jolt the economy back into growth. What we now need to know Mr. Speaker is what happened to the stimulus package — where is the stimulus? Where is the package? Is this $200 million separate from the approved $175 million for 08/09 budget, or separate from the $163.5 million proposed for the 2009/2010 budget, or is this $200 million as many now suspect, all smoke and mirrors? So if we were asked for some ideas on how to fix this, or what a stimulus should look like, we would propose the following: First offer more credit at lower interest rates for the productive sector. For instance, we could offer credit to cane farmers to rehabilitate twelve thousand acres or 20 percent of their cane fields annually. Secondly, let’s set aside some money for rural farmers who grow local products like beans, potatoes, onions, lettuce and so on, rather than the $1.1 million on administrative matters like purchasing furniture and equipment for the Ministry of Agriculture. Let us put more in the hands of our farmers so that they can produce more for the Belizean market. Third, let us set aside money to encourage small urban entrepreneurs so that they can start new projects, stimulate new ideas, create cottage industries in our cities and towns. Fourth, let us set aside funding for children in at risk neighbourhoods and fifth, let us stop the insidious increases in tax and fees and conduct an in-depth reform of the tax system to help increase investment and spur growth. The multiplier effect of these kinds of investments will help Belizeans to feel the possibilities rather than the pain and sorrow they now suffer.”

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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