Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, St. Clair Leacock, on Monday, fact checked the government on its suggestion that the 2021 Budget was not being presented before December, because of the general elections.
“… it is not true, manifestly not true, to say that it is accidental or incidental that the budgetary exercise will be in January because of any sets of circumstances or the making of these public servants or of the political directorate,” Leacock said.
His comments came as he debated a bill that the government went on to pass without opposition support, granting permission for the borrowing of EC$125 million for capital projects in 2021.
Generally, such a bill will be brought to Parliament after the budget is passed.
“We have not had a budget exercise in December in all of 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and I believe it is the same for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014,” said Leacock, who has been an MP for more than 15 years.
“The government has for a long, long time not been able to keep the December deadlines and has gone over not even to early January but most times, close to the end of January,” he said.
He said there are procedures that must be followed and there is a sense that the government was taking the opposition for granted, feeling that it could talk its way out of, into, and around everything and every subject matter.
Leacock asked what is the point of having the approval in December when the money would not be spent then.
“‘You will go to the markets with your instrument secured,’” he said echoing the government’s argument.
“They will laugh at us in the opposition, they will say ‘which opposition does that?’” he, however, countered.
The three-term Central Kingstown representative said that the government could have approached the opposition in an off-the-record conversation seeking their support.
Leacock said the danger is that the new approach will set a precedent and would become the normal procedure.
Speaking ahead of Leacock during the debate, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves noted that the general elections were held on Nov. 5.
He said that a budget call could come as early as May but came toward the end of July because of COVID-19.
In the month before the election, the public officials were involved in the budget exercise, but the political directorate was involved in political work, though connected to governance, Gonsalves said.
“So that a great deal of work had to be done by the political directorate after the 5th of November on the detailed contours of the budget, which made it impracticable for the budget to be presented in December.”
Gonsalves said it is not wholly unreasonable for lawmakers to say to debate the budget then bring the public sector investment bill, which is the borrowing authority.
“The fact of the matter is, we are in challenging times and we have to make adaptation and the Minister of Finance said this, on the basis of the programme which we have been implementing, we been borrowing between 100 and 115 million annually … and that in the estimates which are coming up, we are going to require a sum of about 125 million to finance the capital budget for 2021.
“We can lose a month, maybe even two month by coming at the end of January or the beginning of February with this bill. And when you do that, when you do the market, one of the first things they want to know is about the borrowing authority.”
Gonsalves said that that the country has had unusual weather and one of the problems in fixing road is that if it has to be done later and the government gets the money by the end of March, the dry season is finished, the rainy season starts and effective time is lost.
Gonsalves said that he wanted to affirm that there is nothing in the Finance Act that said that what the government was doing was wrong.
“The point is, both the Honourable Prime Minister and the Honourable Minister of Finance are procedurally wrong in the attempt to seek to have the approval of this house in the attempt to have matters that are germane to the 2021 budgetary exercise brought to this house now for a prior budget approval — very, very wrong,” he said.
“It is not a perspective, it is not a proposition. It is very wrong, period. And the longer the honourable member, the honourable prime minister is on his feet arguing himself out, the more nonsensical the argument and presentation become.”
He said that the position taken by Opposition Leader Godwin Friday in opposing the bill was not a proposition regarding the procedure but rather, it is straight facts.
When the budget is presented it includes the Public Sector Investment Loan, Leacock said, using the official name of the bill passed on Monday.
“Anything outside of that is a departure from the norm.”
The government said that the approach was necessary to take advantage of favourable conditions in the regional securities market, and to get ahead of other Eastern Caribbean Currency Union members in the loan queue.
But Leacock likened the government’s approach to someone taking a house plan to a financial institution seeking a loan, then going back the following day, seeking a disbursement because galvanise sheeting is on sale.
The financier is likely to say that the borrower has not built a foundation but wants to buy galvanise sheeting, Leacock said.
He also presented a scenario where a couple stocks a fridge with turkey, ham, mutton, etcetera for Christmas.
“And the husband sees the wife coming home with a bucket of Kentucky. He is probably going to ask, “God, we just stocked up the house for Christmas. Kentucky because they have a sale?”
He said that when the government goes before the regional security, it does so on the basis of its performance and their evaluation.
Leacock said that the Parliament — the life of which began as a result of the Nov. 5 general elections — is unlike a telecommunication company, in that the discussions and agreements do not rollover.
“And the fact that we have a new parliament requires a new budgetary provision,” he said.
“It’s like going down the road and seeing a sale and discount on cake and bread, but your house is full but you say, I better buy these bread today because next week, we go need bread. They’re stale next week. Don’t just jump on it because the opportunity presents itself,” he said of the government’s approach.