Minister of Finance Larry Howai
LICKS FOR LARRY
Experts take Howai to task for unrealistic budget
Curtis Rampersad Publications Editor
When Finance Minister Larry Howai walked into a post-budget forum yesterday inside a Port of Spain hotel, he did not expect to be like a lone batsman playing against a team of vicious, fast-bowling economic experts.
By the time the onslaught on his 2014 fiscal package was over about two hours later, Howai admitted jokingly that he was a little worse for wear.
The American Chamber of Commerce’s post-budget forum at the Capital Plaza hotel was punctuated by cricket references yesterday, with speakers referring to the fast and steady pace of criticisms against Howai’s $61.39 billion budget presented in Parliament on Monday.
As Howai listened at the head table, speakers waded into aspects of his budget statement titled “Sustaining Growth, Securing Prosperity”.
ANSA McAL Group chief operating officer Gerry Brooks raised concerns about how budgetary allocations were being spent on the education sector.
Howai allocated $9.82 billion toward education and training in the 2013/14 budget.
Brooks suggested that even with more than $8 billion being spent annually, “every year you hear schools not opening” for the new term.
He added that Government’s GATE facility to subsidise tuition fees has to be modified.
“They can’t be failing successive programmes and have people coming back into GATE. We can’t have perpetual students,” he said.
He noted Howai’s budget comment that 70,000 pupils had laptop computers and suggested to the minister that principals needed to ensure that homework and lessons were put on the laptops so children could complete assignments even if schools did not open at the start of the term.
With regard to the crime scourge challenging the country, Brooks said $20 billion had been spent by Government in four years on anti-crime measures.
“But none of us are comfortable here with what’s happening (with crime),” he told Howai to mumbled agreement from the audience jammed into the first floor meeting room of the Capital Plaza.
Even as he said the private sector was willing to help in any way it could, Brooks told the minister that detection rates needed to improve along with the arms of law enforcement.
Economist Indera Sagewan-Alli said Government had spent $226 billion in its budgets since 2011 but the country was not any closer to achieving many of its development objectives. She said the budget aimed to make the country more attractive to foreign visitors through its tourism product.
“Really Minister? Even with high crime, with countries warning their citizens to stay away, with poor customers service, with poor amenities?”
As an example, she said: “If you are driving to Toco and looking for a restroom, I hope you could manage with basic nature.”
The audience chuckled in agreement.
Sagewan-Alli also scoffed at Howai’s agriculture allocation of $1.3 billion, saying it was the same as last year.
Land allocation to farmers did not equal agricultural growth, she said, noting that the poultry industry was also in trouble because of imported chicken which had a high hormone content.
“$1.3 billion for agriculture? We just playing ‘dolly house’,” she told Howai.
Tax line leader at accounting firm Ernst & Young Caribbean, Wade George, spoke of the return to land and building taxes, noting that revenues collected from this instrument traditionally were lower than other countries. He said Government needed to be careful with the implementation of the tax.