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Howai's turn to make on-time pay promises

Finance Minister Larry Howai is shaping up to be the latest People's Partnership Minister to put his reputation on the line by promising not only timely payments to Government contractors but also the long-awaited new and improved State procurement regime. Mr Howai on Saturday took his turn at raising expectations before a Hilton Trinidad banquet audience comprising members of the Trinidad and Tobago Contractors Association.

The Minister expressed sympathy for the cash flow predicament experienced by contractors as they await payment of bills submitted for construction services long before rendered. "I have begun working toward eliminating this problem,'' he said, adding that he had "raised funding in the past few months to significantly propel this process.''

He was likely referring to a $2.5 billion Government bond identified in September by Minister in the Finance Ministry Vasant Bharath as the vehicle for delivering funds to cover due invoices from contractors and to meet pay demands of public servants. Finally, it seems, the money has come in, the will to pay is in place, and its only for the cheques to be written in the names of the contractors due their receivables.

It's never so simple, of course, in dealing with the State machinery, typically always lumbering several steps behind optimistically promised delivery. Two Novembers ago, then Finance Minister Winston Dookeran offered earliest People's Partnership administration assurances for clearing the backlog of unpaid contractors' invoices.

Nor, indeed, is Mr Howai reliably able to predict smooth sailing this time round. In just over two weeks, he said, he had received billings three times from the same contractor. His other observations pointed to wide cracks in the bureaucratic paperwork, through which payment demands and follow-ups can slip. Contractors, he advised, can do themselves favours by insisting on formal notification and verification from State clients for works to be performed.

In dealings with the State bureaucracy, if anything can go wrong, something surely will go wrong, precipitating delays and even losses. Bungled paperwork in the OPV negotiations may have proved costly to T&T's interests, and that in multi-million-dollar terms.

Mending fences with aggrieved contractors must otherwise constitute a priority concern for Mr Howai. His October 1 Budget promised: "We intend to create a construction boom.'' To which end, getting the construction industry onside appears at least a helpful precondition.

To hear from the Minister that consistently expeditious paying of contractors is linked to reinventing the procurement regime is to notice the glacial pace of progress. That implementation of new procurement rules had been promised by the People's Partnership for May 2011 illustrates the foot-dragging inherent in such well-meaning work agreed as necessary by all sides, including Independent Senators.

Mr Howai's is now the newest name to be called should any slowdown occur (again) in this new round of deliberations.

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