Gov’t presents $1.8B budget – but opposition claims it’s sparse on detail

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Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Gaston Browne when delivering the budget presentation.
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By Carlena Knight

[email protected]

The Ministry of Education, Creative Industries and Sports is to receive the biggest chunk of the pie — a whopping $185 million — in this year’s budget, which was outlined yesterday by Prime Minister Gaston Browne.

Last year, when they were separate portfolios, education received $154.8 million and creative industries was allocated $10.4 million.

The Ministry of Education will focus on the expansion of the UWI Five Islands Campus to include US$5 million to build a new primary school in Five Islands. It is expected that construction work will begin by the second quarter of this year.

Other projects in education include major repairs to the Irene B Williams Secondary School and completing the rehabilitation of the Boys’ Training School.

Additional details on how those monies will be allocated will be shared by the minister responsible for that portfolio, Daryll Matthew.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health, Wellness, Social Transformation and the Environment got the second biggest share with $147 million.

Regarding health, the government said it will be constructing a kidney dialysis and renal centre on the compound of the old Holberton Hospital. Once operational, the centre will help in the fight against non-communicable diseases and their impact on the social and economic wellbeing of the nation’s people.

It is hoped that the new facility will enable the country to increase the number of kidney transplants carried out and offer the service to residents in other OECS territories too.

Other allocations went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, Trade and Barbuda Affairs with $50.1 million; Ministry of Housing, Works, Lands and Urban Renewal – $97.6 million; and the Ministry of Tourism, Civil Aviation, Transportation and Investment – $38.3 million.

The Attorney General’s Office and Ministry of Legal Affairs, Public Safety, Immigration and Labour received $106.3 million, while the Ministry of Information Communication Technologies, Utilities and Energy received $15.3 million.

Allocations will also be made for other offices such as the Electoral Commission, the legislature and the judiciary.

This year’s $1.8 billion budget speech dubbed ‘Reset, Recover, Revitalise’ further spoke to a projected 9.4 percent real GDP growth for 2023 by the Central Bank, an increase from last year’s 8.5 percent.

This means that for the past three years since the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s average growth rate was 8.2 percent per annum.

The $1.8 billion budget represents a 9.76 percent increase over the approved figure for the 2022 budget which was $1.64 billion.

It is also projected that the debt to GDP ratio is expected to fall by 77 percent at the end of this year.

“I am pleased to report that preliminary data for the end of 2022 show continued improvement in our fiscal balances following the deterioration caused by the pandemic in 2020.

“After widening to 6.4 percent of GDP in 2020, the overall fiscal deficit narrowed to 4.5 percent in 2021. Similarly, the primary deficit, which was 3.8 percent of GDP in 2020, was contained at two percent of GDP in 2021,” Browne detailed.

“In 2022, the fiscal position was further improved. The overall deficit narrowed to 3.6 percent and the primary deficit to one percent of GDP.

“This fiscal outcome resulted from stronger revenue performance in 2022, due to our government’s policies, particularly in tourism construction and housing,” the Prime Minister added.

One of the main contributors to this growth, he said, was the tourism sector.

“When the final figures are compiled for 2022, tourism is expected to have grown by 56.4 percent and construction by 20 percent.

“The resurgence in tourism was led by a 56 percent increase in stay-over arrivals to over 265,000 visitors compared to just under 170,000 in 2021. Had it not been for the closure of three hotel properties, we would have surpassed 2019 arrivals.

“The cruise industry rebounded significantly after the pandemic-related shutdown in 2020. In 2022, Antigua and Barbuda welcomed more than 377,000 cruise passengers. This is more than four times the number of cruise passengers recorded in 2021,” Browne said.

He went on to thank the Antiguan and Barbudan people for being “the most resilient in the world” in helping to contribute to the continued growth of the economy post-Covid despite ongoing global inflation, the high cost of living due to the conflict in Ukraine, increases in shipping costs and other rising prices.

Global inflation jumped from 4.7 percent in 2021 to 8.8 percent in 2022 – the highest it has been in several decades. According to the World Bank, by 2022 more than 125 countries had experienced food price inflation in excess of five percent.

According to Browne, although many in the Opposition have stated that his administration has given no relief to the people, $1.3 million was spent in relief monies and social programmes.

He pledged that his government will continue to work on strategic measures to assist the people and improve upon their “top five” ranking in the region for human development.

However, one of those measures will not be additional taxes, as no new taxes were announced yesterday during the Finance Minister’s address.

While the budget presentation ended with thunderous applause from supporters, Leader of the Opposition Jamale Pringle was not impressed.

Pringle told Observer that although a lot of policies and projects were outlined, there was little detailed information and figures given on other areas.

“We were looking for a lot more coming out of the budget – at least how the government is going to tackle some of the major issues that we are faced with, for example, when we look at cost of living.

“They said they have done so much to assist with that and what we are saying is we have put forward several policies within our manifesto of which you will hear me outline again.

“When you look at the job situation, we are not hearing anything meaningful as to how government plans to resolve the unemployment situation. I am not hearing anything substantial as to the water situation.

“When you look at it, they are just vague. Yes, they boast about growth, growth, growth, but how many ordinary persons can realise this growth? Can they feel this growth within their pockets?” Pringle queried.

Debate on this year’s budget will commence in the Lower House of Parliament on March 9.

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