I rise today to make my contribution to the debate on the General Revenue Appropriation 2017/2018, Bill of 2017.
Madame Speaker, based on this budget presented by the government, The Belizean people have once again been hoodwinked and cheated from a budget that should clearly identify the relationship between budget allocations and government policies. This budget does not reflect or emphasize the broad policy strategy conceived for different sectors. It is clear that there has been much playing around with numbers so as to present a budget that on the surface seems to provide some semblance of balance and stability, but upon closer scrutiny is aimed at deceiving the Belizean public.
Madame speaker, we will note that in general what this budget is showing is an increase of revenues via taxation and a reduction in expenditure through the reduction of Capital expenditures—some 93.8M less. Well, we on this side of the house and indeed, the general public, have now realized that this type of budget has become habitual of the UDP administration—that is, presenting a closely balanced budget with as minimum a deficit possible, but knowing full well, that during the course of the year there will be some 4 or 5 appropriation bills that will severely skew the budget to the deficit side. This deficit will not show up in the budget for debate but will show up until the following year as that Fiscal Year’s Actual Outturn. That is why Madame speaker, that the overall deficit has grown from 126.3M, to 261.5 M and 156.8. M in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively. And, we are talking of only “above the line” expenditures in the budget.
In reality, Madame Speaker, the Belizean people question the validity of this budget debate exercise, as time and time again it is the same old story that the opposition will have its say but the government will have its way. For the government in power this is the oxymoron “sweet pain.”
So, madam speaker, I will repeat my recommendation during the introduction of my presentation for the 2016-2017 budget debate. And that is, that the Belizean people have once again been cheated from the opportunity of a pre-budget statement or Fiscal Strategy paper to be perused, commented and suggested upon, weeks before the presentation of the budget and so arrest what is customarily done.
Madame Speaker, I note clearly the increase in taxes of 80+ M dollars and the 14 million coming by way of the transfers from Quasi government institutions that together are the two large sources of the 104 million dollars in increased recurrent revenues. These institutions have already voiced their concerns on the survival of their programs and the institution per se. For some, like BAHA who already rely on government subventions, transferring 10% of their revenues will be detrimental on their operations. Already, the private sector perceives BAHA as a money-making institution that potentially makes some of their activities prohibitive. BAHA more than likely must increase fees for licenses and inspections and other fees in order to survive. This will be paid by the productive, manufacturing and export sector thus increasing the cost of doing business and contributing to the difficulty in competitiveness.
Downside of Not heeding to IMF recommendations in relation to Retrenchment:
Madame speaker, there is boasting of not having to heed to IMF recommendation on “retrenchment” but in defiance there is an increase of 958 ‘staff’ members in 2016 and a proposed additional 505 in budget year 2017. If these were all doctors, nurses, teachers and other more than necessary staff, then it would be well worth the expenditure. However, when it is largely unestablished staff that are largely, political appointees, then we are inappropriately taxing the population to pay for the political gains of this administration. Therefore, the Herculean efforts called upon from the Belizean people for recovery and rebound is reduced to mere political gain.
Madam speaker, even the nurses and other staff at the San Ignacio Hospital complain that there is an unnecessary number of appointees doing nothing productive and as a matter of fact getting in the way of the working staff. If you visit the forestry department you see a number of persons just sitting there with nothing to do– The senior staff complaining that these persons were sent there by their Minister of government and that these persons have no terms of reference. This Madame speaker is a waste of public resources that could have been better spent in better services to the public. Additionally, Madame speaker, increasing staff costs, decreases the very essential operational expenditures.
In 2016/2017 budget ”Stability In a Time of Change” the PM informed us that there would be a windfall gain of approximately 150,000,000 dollars by Belizeans due to the fall on world fuel prices. He also instituted a taxation to collect some 50 million from Belizeans despite the fact that all over the world the price of crude and the price of fuel at the pump were at its lowest. These fuel prices affected the cost of doing business in the productive sector. We have heard of loss of export earnings in shrimp, papaya and citrus. What has not been told is that cattle prices fell by 50% thus affecting cattle producers, especially those that invested in new farms and expansion of their farms. That export to Mexico that was so vociferously, and clamourously sounded, never materialized. Additionally, all those inputs that increased in cost with the advent of increased prices remained high and have not fallen with the reduction in prices, thus marginalizing many producers.
I note madam speaker and welcome the increased allocation to Agricultural diversification of 300% and support to traditional crops of 100 %. The national livestock program remains the same at zero (0) dollars allocated to the Cattle sweep program. Yet, on the output indicators it reveals a 100% coverage of livestock through the cattle sweep programme. This is a clear example of filling in numbers and filling the paper with black ink but lacking the substance that this budget should really convey and support.
Madam Speaker, there is currently a serious problem with the spread of Rabies in cattle. This infection is largely through the vampire bat which serves as the vector for transmission to cattle, sheep, foxes and other wild life. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, which means it can spread from animals to humans. There is no cure for Rabies. The Ministry of agriculture has advised livestock owners to vaccinate all their cattle, sheep and goats, which is prudent advice. However, vaccination does not cure and neither does it eliminate the disease, especially if there is an overpopulation of the vampire bat. Therefore, madam Speaker livestock producers were looking forward to a programme for bat control to reduce the bat population as it was done many years ago, where there was a fully funded Bat-Control programme with two full-time officers, an office, vehicle, nets and the anticoagulant paste to rub on the captured vampire bats, so that it would return to its roost to groom its colonies and so reduce the number available to spread the disease. I am cognizant that Wildlife may have problems with this method and there are other alternative methods that can be used to reduce the bat population and therefore be in line with wild life and environmental protection policies. But once again, this government seems not amenable to the needs of the livestock farmer.
I have a problem madam speaker when there is a 5 million increase in the Health budget for recurrent expenditure, almost 6 million for salaries but only have an increase of 2 persons on staff. Yet, under medicine and technology there is a reduction of 3.5 million dollars and .5 million from primary care services for a total of 4 million from medical supplies and only an increase of 250,000 and 40,000 or total of 290,000 under Hospital services and community based services, therefore amounting to a decrease in 3.7 million dollars from medical supplies.
This madam speaker, is apparently, being in line with GOB’s FY 2016/2017 “belt tightening” and “bridling of waste,” that included medical supplies. And so, madam speaker, what is difficult to understand is this talk of pro-poor, poverty alleviation, reduction in in-equitability, reduction of exclusion and social disparities in health and medical services and treatment which are considered to be some of the basic areas of social assistance and recommended by the United nations Sustainable development goals. And so, it is now no surprise to know that the large number of persons suffering from diabetes and hypertension can no longer get their much-needed medication from the public hospitals. It is no longer surprising to find out that the sick are asked to bring their own syringes if they need to get their injections from the public hospitals. Indeed, madam speaker, we are not prioritizing our expenditure. I warn Madam speaker, of increased problems emanating from the consequences of diabetes, including kidney failure and God forbid, an increased demand for dialysis in the near future.
Madam speaker, the Ministry of Health nor the GOB have put any consideration on the upgrade of the San Pedro polyclinic II. San Pedro, a large and constantly growing community has outgrown the services available by this clinic and it is more than time to consider expansion of the infrastructure and of the services provided. It is inconceivable how the area representative has not requested and or collaborated with the Ministry of Health for this unit. Being the largest, single tourist destination in Belize, tourists also look for health services or at least the knowledge that it is available if needed, as a prerequisite when deciding on their vacation destination. Perhaps, having a better unit with its professional services could have saved the life of young Jordanie Olivera, 23 years of age who died at the San Pedro air terminal on Tuesday March 14, 2017, while awaiting a flight to seek medical attention in Belize city.
The San Ignacio community hospital houses only 16 beds, yet services 22 communities and a population of more 30,000. The ambulance is on a constant run to Belmopan to take patients as the hospital has no specialists and no surgery ward, yet reports are that only 30% of the hospital is being utilized. Often, patients taken in emergency to the Belmopan regional have to wait in line, for the Belmopan regional has one room divided by curtains as its emergency ward. If the ward is full, then there is a long wait until a patient is stabilized and can be transferred to a regular ward and so open up a space for the patient waiting in line. The Belmopan Regional was established more than 30 years ago, has 50 beds and services a population for the region of more than 73,000. It is also a referral Hospital for Stann Creek and Toledo, according sources. A new hospital for the Capital city is long overdue.
Madam speaker, there is one vector control unit in San Ignacio but none in Belmopan. Therefore, the San Ignacio VC unit must service the entire Cayo district. While a central office in San Ignacio is fine, there is clearly, need for additional staff, vehicles and fumigation units. Perhaps, this is where the political appointees could be placed to become useful and contribute to the well-being of the wider population and so be gainfully and proudly employed.
Madam speaker, another necessary component of our health system is a National Children’s hospital. Our Belize Health Sector Strategic Plan (HSSP) identifies some of the major causes of death in children and disaggregates the data into the perinatal period and between the ages of 1-5 and 6-9 years with varying percentages attributed to various diseases. Children, the foundation of our future human resource should have their own hospital since many children can potentially be infected with diseases carried by adults within a general hospital setting.
Madam Speaker, UNICEF and WHO in 1991, promoted the ‘Baby- Friendly Hospital Initiative and stated that “A child’s first right is to the Best start in Life”. The UN Convention on the rights of the Child states that nations “shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” Belize then, should step up to the next level, a dedicated, National Children’s Hospital.
Madam speaker, the priorities of this administration are totally out of order. I believe that it is high time for social security to invest the people’s monies in health. But we need a government and a board with the will to direct these investments. We need a government that will set priorities where it truly matters most. If only we had earmarked those monies from crude oil to health and education, today, we would be the envy of the region. And we would not be having incidences like a person who enters the hospital with breathing problems and a week after hospitalization and treatment dies from internal bleeding.
Madam Speaker, the bureau of standards and or BAHA should be addressing this latest report of tainted meats coming out of Brazil. Two mega companies that export meats are reportedly involved in selling rotten, spoiled meat and have been caught adding cartoon and paper to increase volumes of their products. The US and Jamaica in the region have implement precautionary measures that range from increased inspections, laboratory testing, banning and taking off canned meats off the shelf.
We must protect our consumers. We must implement policies for importation of certain products like those containing Monosodium Glutamate and other additives/carcinogenics. These products are addictive and cause non-communicable diseases including kidney and liver damage. We import condensed and evaporated “filled” milk in which the natural butter fat is withdrawn and substituted with cheap, low- grade palm oil that is full of saturated fat and lacks three of the fat-soluble vitamins.
Madam Speaker, once again we see the sizable allocations to the Ministry of works but there is not one single House meeting where you will not hear constituency members, especially for those with rural constituencies, asking, begging for some work to be done in their area. Yet despite the millions of dollars allocated to this ministry, the people do not see the work being done to improve the livelihood of the population. One reason madam Speaker, is that the Ministry of works has no vehicles and equipment. When is the last year that the GOB has allocated monies for a fleet of appropriate and durable equipment?
Since the inception of Belize Infrastructure Limited, all we hear about is contracts here and there but no on-the ground development infrastructure, for example, those badly needed by the farming community in terms of feeder roads, farm roads and village streets and roads.
14 farmers in Santa Familia village have not been able to get their produce out of their farms adequately for the past 2 years. A plastic culvert moving water along a creek was burnt and was never replaced. This caused farmers to physically carry on their backs, hundreds of bags of corn, beans and other produce for a distance of about ½ mile, making hundreds of trips from the farm to the other side of the creek. Even though I approached the Minister of works in the presence of the Hon. Prime Minister, and was promised to get help, that assistance never came. But today, the 14 farmers and their families are happy and most pleased, since during the past three weeks we have been able to construct a large concrete Culvert/bridge to the tune of some 7,200.
This year there are 7 million dollars allocated for that airport link from the George Price highway. That is 7 million dollars that could be used elsewhere, for we already have a link to the airport through Burrell boom.
In the 2016/17 FY, budget allocations served to maintain 95 miles of village streets, and 195 miles of village roads, but alas! Not one inch of road or street was fixed or maintained in Cayo northeast. I mention this madam speaker, because neither was it done during the years of plenty, and I refer to the Petro Carib bonanza and the large revenues from Crude petroleum which largely came from my constituency in Cayo Northeast. Yet, no monies were nor being spent in that Constituency. As a matter of fact, madam Speaker, our portion of Highway was relegated to be the last to be fixed and rehabilitated.
Interestingly, 4.5 million dollars were spent according to the revised estimates for FY2016/2017 on the George Price Highway rehabilitation. But, on the Performance and output indicators, the report notes ‘0’ miles upgraded/rehabilitated. And again, for this FY 2017/2018 budget allocation, it shows some 7.5 million dollars for the GP Highway rehabilitation under Capital III funding and an additional 1.5 million under Capital II for construction and maintenance of inland waterways on the GP highway. Yet the performance indicators predict fixing only 3 miles on this Highway amounting to some 3 million dollars per mile. Indeed, Madam speaker, I hope that this is an error in printing, otherwise we are truly being taken for a long and perilous ride.
Very important for the people in Cayo, there are “0” dollars allocated for maintenance of the Hawkesworth bridge that spans the Macal river giving access to San Ignacio and Santa Elena. Last year, there was an allocation of 160,000. Perhaps, it is perceived that with the advent of the new Macal bridge there will be no need for the Hawkesworth bridge and so the intention might be to retire the old bridge and use it as an historical relic. Either way madam speaker, that bridge will need maintenance.
I will give the Minister of works credit for finally assisting with the construction of the Branch mouth cable bridge afforded through a loan from CDB. Although not being constructed to the recommended specifications and without consultation with the villagers, it has been pending for 33 months and is most welcome.
I will be brief on this matter for my colleagues have expressed their views on this part of the budget. My concern here Madam speaker, and I may be wrong, is that I do not see a budget item for a ‘Truancy’ programme. In san Ignacio and Sta. Elena it is very common to see during school hours, children walking around and some that are selling some food item or the other. These children should be in school and truancy officers could assist in this regard. After discussing with some friends, we realize that there must be a family need for them to have the children selling during school hours.
I also want to take this opportunity to Big Up a primary school in my constituency, St. Andrew, Anglican school for their consistent good performance in the PSE exams during the past few years, having at least one person in the top ten and last year winning the number one spot. You may have heard that every year parents sleep outside the compound when time for registration of children for the infant classes. Parents will be there from midnight until the school opens at 8 a.m. to get an opportunity for first come first serve basis. Two days ago, was the ultimate, as parents were at the school compound earlier than 5 p.m. the day before. Why don’t we get these high-performance schools to share experiences with other schools?
Madam speaker, once again we note the low revenues from land taxes. Land taxes will not improve if we still have lands that are closed off from the collection of taxes. But much worse is the fact that many of these lands are leases in the hands of the rural poor who work and live off their lands. But now after 30 or forty years are losing their leases because they expire. When they request renewal, they are told their land has been cancelled because they did not pay. But how can they pay Madam speaker if their monies are not being accepted since 2008?
Yet madam speaker, there are certain individuals, who act as land agents and are well connected, who make it their business to sell these farmers’ lands. Just two or three years ago, these agents were hitching rides but today they drive expensive SUVs.
Madam speaker, these poor farmers who have lost their lands are not only being disenfranchised but are being dispossessed. It may not be too far-fetched when the courts in our country will take on these cases and require the state to implement a course of Reparation.
(Human development) Women and Gender services
Madam Speaker, 50% of our population is women. Per the 2010 census provided by SIB, there are some 12,000 more women in the rural vs urban communities. Our constitution speaks of gender equality. This administration has pledged to uplift women in our society and to promote women and gender services. I note that there are allocations for the Ministry of Human Development in terms of salaries and other emoluments and some monies for workshops and training for a total Recurrent Expenditure of 785,879 dollars. 512,000 or 65% is spent on personal emoluments and the remaining 35% is on administrative costs except for 3,600 which is allocated for Individual grants and 6,700 for training. It is not clear whether the training is for women or for the staff.
In the 2016/2017 budget, Madam Speaker, there was an allocation under Capital II of 95,000 for the National Gender-Based Violence Plan and 671,875 for Violence prevention. In this budget Madam speaker, there are Zero (0) dollars allocated Violence prevention. What this budget is showing is the monies needed to run an office but no monies devoted to actually doing any type of work with our battered, abused, unemployed, unempowered and disenfranchised women. I ask madam speaker, did violence against women end with the 2016/2017 Fiscal year? The 2016 report from the US dept. of state on Human Rights states, that one of the most important Human rights abuses is harassment and threats based on sexual orientation or gender identity and includes domestic violence, discrimination against women and sexual abuse of children. Additionally, the COMPOL’s Statistics for 2016 presented to the media on January 11, 2017, stated that there were 23 incidences of Rape compared to 30 in 2015. Unlawful sexual intercourse accounted for 87 cases as compared to 74 in 2015, showing an increase of 17.6%. So, the answer is No– Violence against women did not end in 2016. Non-allocation of resources to fight violence against women is a clear indication of the importance that this administration places on our women.
And, that is not all madam speaker, as the output indicator on the budget shows that 25,000 women will be reached by advocacy and outreach activities. This is a shame madam speaker, and I am certain that the women of this country will not forget this treatment in a long time. Especially, madam speaker, when it is presented to them during the celebration of International Women’s Month.
I however, do not want to think that this treatment, the lack of funding for violence against women is a thinly disguised misogyny.
Madame speaker, our past few budgets have had fancy names such as FY 2016/2017 “Stability in a Time of Change, and now this 2017/2018 “Bouncing back, A Bold Belizean Recovery.” The language content of the budget presentation is manipulative, numbers crunched and punched to deceive the wider public and to satisfy their own illusion. What this UDP government is hoping from the Belizean people is likened to the term ‘Habituation’ which is a decrease in an elicited behavior resulting from the repeated presentation of an eliciting stimulus.
Indeed, Madam speaker, this type of budget is tantamount to ‘gas lighting’ but the government fails to see that in their attempt to hoodwink, they themselves are blinded and do not recognize the intelligence of the Belizean people. Henceforth, the wide discussion and the disillusion from the private sector, statutory bodies, the media and other stakeholders in the wider public.
And, so Madam Speaker, the Bold Belizean Recovery with this budget is just a Phantasm, a figment of the Imagination! And I cannot support the budget as presented.
In ending Madam speaker, let me take the opportunity to thank the People of Cayo Northeast for their continued collaboration and support. In so doing, I also thank my hard working and dedicated executive committee for always being there not only for me but for our constituents.
Before I forget madam Speaker, I would be doing this Honorable House and the people of Belize a disservice if I did not update you on the status of the horse whose fate the member for Cayo Central so descriptively elucidated. The member stated that the horse’s guts spilled out on the race track before a large crowd and the horse had to be put to sleep. I do not know if by way of divine intervention or some Lazarus syndrome, the horse owner says it is alive and well and will be running at the Boom racetrack on Easter Monday.
Thank you, Madam Speaker, and if we do not have another meeting in the next two weeks, let me wish you and all members of this house a happy and fruitful Easter.