Budget surprises

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It would be correct to say that most Antiguans, and perhaps Barbudans, look forward to the annual exercise called the Budget Presentation.

The date of the presentation is not particularly fixed. In the past, it fell in the old year, at other times at the start of the new year, and still at other times, as late as June. Whatever the date, it is a highly anticipated event.

In the recent past, a heavy reliance was placed on a multi-media presentation, as the minister of finance employed white board and projector, charts and graphs, to illustrate his points and graphically display the figures. All towards the end of impressing on the citizenry how much thought and effort went into not only coming up with the figures but also presenting the package.

The people, who take time out to sit in the gallery of the Parliament, listen attentively and even the school children, who attend because they are sent, look studiously at the minister of finance, as he expounds, gesticulates and pontificates. 

At the end of the presentation, the hearers would take from it what they deemed of interest to their specific sphere.  Meantime, we, in the media, would take a long, hard look at the numbers – which are not supposed to lie – and with the aid of brighter minds than ours, interpret what they mean.

We tend to gauge our national fortunes on the numbers, and to a certain extent or personal ones as well. There is, however, one constant. It has been the feature of most all our budgets. We expect to give, in the form of taxes, but just as, or even more importantly, we expect to get. We know our government will take from us on one hand and return something with the other.

Even when the line of ‘no new taxes’ is spouted, we only have to dig, and not too deep either, and we more often than not would find the hidden fees and or taxes.

It’s January 2017, and the budget for the year has been laid on the table. The finance minister, who is also the prime minister, used most of his three-hour presentation to inform the nation of just how poor a job his predecessor, and the entire administration, did.

There was one admission to modernity, as he employed a teleprompter to remind him of his lines.

To say this Budget Presentation was a departure from the norm is to put it mildly. The theme was one that had been drilled and doubled down on since last year: ‘Building an economic powerhouse…’ Hence, we fully expected to see a blueprint for this house and the road map that that will get us there. But, we were left somewhat hanging, as the finance minister said, ” The parliamentary representatives with responsibility for the respective ministries will provide details of their priorities, strategies and programmes for 2017, in the course of the debate on this Budget.”

We would have thought that that was the raison d’etre of the Budget, to outline to the citizenry government’s priorities, strategies and programmes for the year. The ministers, during their budget debate would put the icing on the cake, so to speak.

Here are some of the highlights from the 2017 presentation. There will be a wage freeze: no new hirings. Government will go after tax avoiders with a vengeance; public servants must wait another year before hearing if they will get an increase. Teachers who get a house through government will get $10, 000 off their mortgage.

Having become accustomed to budget deficits, we welcomed the news that it is expected that in 2017, there will be a surplus of $106 million, as the nation will spend $769 million and rake in $935 million.

Given that this is a new phenomenon, we look to our government to make wise use  of this left-over monies.

What can we do with money like this? The list is not exhaustive. But might we make a few suggestions: Fix a few more than the two roads identified for overhaul from the British grant. Go easy on householders by lowering the fuel variation on their electricity bills. And, while you are at it, drop the price of fuel at the pumps; scrap the plan to increase the charge levied on goods at the port and have a relook at the unincorporated business tax. From the perspective of comprehensive tax reform, it appears regressive

Pensioners would welcome a cost of living adjustment and timely Social Security payments. Bring on the regular water schedule and say goodbye to power outages.

We await the Budget debates. Perhaps, there will be a few pleasant, and the emphasis is on pleasant, surprises after all.

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