Four budgets later

While it has been agreed broadly that this year’s budget is unlikely to create major dissent, its holding nature raises serious questions about whether its fiscal and policy prescriptions are underpinned by any larger vision or even conviction. This is the APNU+AFC’s fourth budget presentation. The first in 2015 on August 10th can be discounted as reflective of an overarching vision and framework since it had to be presented hurriedly after the general elections that were called for May. However, the three succeeding budgets should have accreted on the APNU+AFC manifesto outlined in 2015 and progressively built on the defined framework. This has not been the case.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the tinkering and indecision evidenced in tax measures presented. A year after introducing the much reviled Value-added Tax on private tuition, the government has rescinded it. Among other steps, it has also halved the tributor’s tax in the gold mining sector. Both of these measures attracted widespread opposition, and in the case of the tributor’s tax, from the gold mining community which is seen as an important constituency of the government and with muscle to boot. The reversal of these measures is no doubt genuflection to populism rather than the institution of carefully thought out tax policy which the government was prepared to stand by and which it could persuasively argue for.

While this is the third full-year budget presented by Minister Jordan, the government is yet to comprehensively address tax policy within the ambit of the recommendations of the expert group that it had commissioned to make recommendations and proposals. Instead, the government is operating without cohesiveness as it relates to the revenue collection base, taxing of the business sector and the take home earnings of workers and general household income.

Whether a stalling tactic or a shot in the dark, the APNU+AFC government has become notorious for the launching of commissions of inquiry, expert reviews and other investigations only to leave many of them stranded. It may reflect the government’s incapacity to digest these reports and do the hard work to meld them with its policy/vision or as suggested earlier these are just delay tactics or diversions.  It is tomfoolery and a waste of taxpayers’ money to be setting up these expert panels but then not following through with them in a comprehensive manner even if not adhering to or accepting all of the recommendations and prescriptions. There is no evidence of the government having pored over the Odle tax committee report and setting out in painstaking detail to the public which recommendations will be pursued and why, which are inappropriate and why and which may reflect a longer-term vision. It is time that it does this.

In its manifesto, APNU+AFC promised that in a phased manner it would increase the personal income tax threshold to $100,000 per month. It would be safe to assume that this was intended to be done over the life of its term in office. Given that this threshold has seen changes by increments of about $5,000 it is difficult to see how the government will live up to its promise given that the threshold is currently $72,000 and there are two more budgets to come. The phased approached seemed to have missed the 2018 budget as there was no adjustment and to make it worse there was no discussion by Minister Jordan in this area.

Another glaring shortcoming of the 2018 budget is its virtual silence on job creation particularly for youths. Parties campaigning for office are given to making promises of job creation and this government is no exception. Four budgets have come and gone without any serious discussion of the state of unemployment and underemployment in the country and what the government intends to do about this. A pivotal starting point in any such discussion would be the question of what is the real rate of unemployment and has it or will it be expected to change over time with annual policy prescriptions in the budget. Despite its professed recognition of the importance of statistics, it was only in the middle of this year that the government had the Statistical Bureau set off on the gathering of employment data. One hopes that these figures will be available to inform the 2019 budget presentation.

Like  its predecessor, this government is given to trotting out numbers about the amount of investments garnered by Go-Invest and the amount of jobs created. For these figures to be taken seriously they need to be textured. Where are the details of these investments and the jobs created?  Questions already abound as to what exactly Go-Invest is doing considering that the mission of mobilising investors for the sugar industry was outsourced to someone else.

There are any number of disjunctions between this budget and the government’s manifesto. Enough to suggest that the manifesto was not meant to be taken seriously or the government is unable to incorporate its promises. Sugar stands out as a sore thumb and is now again the source of grief to the communities of Rose Hall and Enmore as the year draws to a close. None of the four budgets presented by the government or the insights of its reputed mandarins have presented any workable solutions or alternative employment for the hundreds who have been laid off from GuySuCo and the families that are now in suspended animation; that constitutes neglect, abject failure or some combination of the two. It is another serious shortcoming in the 2018 budget.

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