Mininum wage increased to $17.50 an hour, CEPEP and URP salaries up by 15 percent, jobs for youths, day care centres for tots, shelters for homeless women - and a tax-free agriculture sector.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert yesterday announced these improvements within a bag of concessions for various other sectors in his 2020 Budget, widely regarded as an election Budget.
Indeed, Imbert closed his Budget presentation listing what Government has done in its term and adding, “We’ve achieved our manifesto promises.... we’ve clearly demonstrated a capacity and competence in management of the economy over the last 48 months ....our exemplary record could now stand the test of public scrutiny.”
“We in the PNM will continue to ‘Get Up And Stand Up for What is Right’,” he concluded, quoting late reggae icon Bob Marley.
The $53.036 billion Budget - $2.5B more than last year’s $51.7B Budget- will take T&T through the Rowley administration’s fifth and final year in which Local Government polls are due after November 28 and general elections, next year.
Imbert spoke for three hours and 10 minutes on his Budget’s theme which proclaimed “Stability, Strength and Growth.”
The package was - as projected - devoid of any gas price hikes, increased taxes or measures to punish the public. Instead the slew of concessions included an increase in the Minimum Wage from $15 to $17.50 per hour. This will benefit 194,000 people and become effective from December 1.
Wages for CEPEP and Unemplopyment Relief (URP) workers will be increased from December 1 by 15 percent. Fees paid to CEPEP contractors will also be increased by 15 percent.
Imbert announced a pension of $3,500 from 2020 for daily paid public servants with the appropriate minimum length of service. This will be a contributory plan. Currently, daily paid workers only receive a lump sum of money, but no pension.
The On-The-Job stipend will be increased by 10 percent . There will also be an increased intake of the OJT programme to 8,000 trainees, effective December 1.
Government pensioners born in T&T will no longer have to present Life Certificates. This will be extended to recipients of senior citizens’ pensions later in 2020.
Imbert also announced daycare centres for children under three years. These would be established in communities and also provide employment for women.
He said, “Currently there are thousands of women unable to seek employment due to the high costs and lack of day care facilities for lower income, families. The intent is to introduce child care services for female headed householders who meet stipulated criteria.”
He announced shelters for homeless females displaced by family conflict, domestic violence, crime/other issues. After assessment, women will be temporarily assigned to shelters for three to 12 months.
Imbert removed all taxes and duties for inputs to agriculture, “It’s a tax free industry.”
He assured that the Mosquito Creek elevated roadway will be ready by August 2020.
Imbert also removed the requirement to fill out arrival forms at airports from 2020 . This which will reduce lengthy lines at airports. The new system will rely on Advance Passenger Information (API) .
From January 2020, the value of personal goods that can be imported without incurring customs duties will also be increased from $3,000 - a level set in 2005 - to $5,000.
The Budget was based on the same oil and gas prices Imbert used in his mid year review: US$60 and US$3 per MMBtu.
Total revenue is budgeted at $47.7B up from the 2019 figure of $46.5B. The fiscal deficit for 2020 is expected to increase marginally to $5.2B compared with the 2019 deficit of $3.9B.
Trade-off on VAT refunds
Imbert’s solution to settle the $4.5B in VAT refunds owed to businessmen involved offering $3B in the first instance in interest- bearing Government bonds to eligible VAT registered bsuinesses to meet arrears.
These wil have a tenor of five years with an interest rate of 1.5 percent per annum. Bonds will be tradeable and transferable to be used as collateral or for cash. After that, he said he’d ensure VAT refunds are made current.
A new methodology to replace the existing basis for taxation of life insurance companies was also announced, “It’ll have minimal impact on the tax position of insurance companies,”
Imbert said implementation of the property tax is constrained by completion of Opposition cases on the matter and Government hopes that will be resolved in 2020 for asessment of properties to be expedited. So far 60,000 valuation forms have been submitted - 15 percent of residential households.
He said the recently concluded tax amnesty netted an historic $2.3B - five times more than projected.
Imbert added that OWTU’s negotiations for the Petrotrin refinery is “still an on going process which if successful” will lead to the award to OWTU’s Patriotic company of the contract for purchase of the refinery.
Police get more, but Govt unhappy about crime
Top dollar in the Budget went to Education ($7.5B), National Security ($6.4B), Health, ($6.8B ) Public Utilties ($3,47B), Works ($2.9B), Rural Development/Local Government ($2.4B), Housing ($1B).
The Police Service appeared to receive more than its 2019 allocation of approx.$2.1B . The Estimates of Expenditure (2020) listed an estimate for the TTPS as $2.6B. The Police Commissioner and Imbert had sparred during the last fiscal year on releases which the CoP had complained about .
Yesterday Imbert said, “We agree that while there’ s been some improvement in the crime situation, its level remains too high and continues to pose threats to public safety. The crime situation is creating negative perception about TT at home as well as abroad. It’s creating a feeling of fear and a degree of insecurity. Let me emphasise: this Government isn’t prepared to tolerate the continuing of this high level of crime and murder,”
Tobago House of Assembly received $2.2B - 4.3 percent of the Budget.
Imbert assured Tobagonians- some of whom protested outside Parliament yesterday about the Tobago Airport terminal project that - all would be treated fairly.