Preparing an election budget during a recession must be difficult
Don't envy Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. In the next few weeks he has the unenviable task of presenting a budget for fiscal year 2014/ 2015 that would make him feel like Santa Claus; but, alas, he has a paro's purse. During "election years" all governments worldwide offer their people goodies, such as tax breaks, so as to influence their voting decisions. But though Mr. Skerrit and the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) will want to offer goodies to Dominicans, the government has no idea where the money will come from to pay for the freebies. Hence, the Government may be inclined to offer a variety of pie-in-the-sky promises that Mr. Skerrit knows his Government will not be able to fulfill in the new term; that is, assuming that the DLP wins the upcoming elections.
So, what about new taxes in the budget of July 2014 to pay for the pre-election goodies? Are you crazy? Who thinks of introducing new taxes during an election campaign especially when voters are already up to their necks in a sea of taxes? Undoubtedly, we will hear the usual mantra of "no new taxes" when Mr Skerrit delivers his budget address in a few weeks.
As usual the majority of the Dominican population will not bother to tune in to the broadcast of the budget address because these three-hour statistics-churning talk marathons have been considered to be rather staid and predictable. Additionally, many persons have adopted the attitude that the various plans and programmes that ministers endorse during these addresses have done very little to improve the quality of life of the majority of Dominicans. Even the Government itself, over the years, sometimes acknowledges that it has had a terrible record of implementing some of its programmes, especially projects of the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP), one of the major aspects of the budget.
Nevertheless, we have argued in the past that the presentation of Dominica's annual budget is an absolutely important occasion considering the fact that it gives citizens an indication of the policies and programmes that the government intends to implement during the financial year. But citizens must demand that Prime Minister Skerrit and his ministers specify not only their plans for spending the State's money over the next twelve months but should, at the same time, provide accurate reports of government's achievements over the past fiscal year. If this is done, annual budget presentations would become more meaningful because politicians, who are elected to manage the business of the people, would have to account annually rather than at the end of the five-year election cycle.
We believe that an independent analysis of the Prime Minister's budget presentation last year is likely to show that not much has happened in the Dominican economy apart from the fact that the recession in the United States and elsewhere has continued to decimate our fragile and extremely vulnerable economy. For instance, during the presentation of last year's budget, you will recall that the Prime Minister stated that his government intends to improve the climate for private sector investment, take measures towards reducing poverty as well as implement programmes aimed at improving the quality of life of Dominicans. We contend that instead of improving, the quality of life of the majority of Dominicans has unquestionably declined over the past year, especially in the rural areas where banana yields as well as agricultural production generally, has practically collapsed.
On many occasions over the past five years, including budget addresses in the House of Assembly, Mr.Skerrit has frequently boasted that his government is proud of its achievements and has demonstrated a certain level of disciplined economic management characterized by prudence and fiscal responsibility, to paraphrase his frequent statements.
But we do not expect the emoluments section of the budget to improve. The fact that this aspect of the budget will increase is obvious. As we have stated many times in the past, over the years Prime Minister Skerrit has added many new positions to his cabinet as well as a few unnecessary advisors who operate within the office of the prime minister. At the moment, during this recession, Mr. Skerrit presides over the largest cabinet since independence. Hence hundreds of thousands more has been added to the recurrent expenditure to operate the offices of these additional ministers, parliamentary secretaries, advisers and their support staff.
Additionally, as they negotiate for new salaries, civil servants and police officers will examine the budget closely to discern whether the Government really wants them to take a salary freeze for the next few years without signaling its seriousness by cutting the number of cabinet positions.
Given these circumstances, it will be difficult to share the DLP's optimism about the prospects for the economic development of Dominica, which we anticipate the Prime Minister will espouse in the new budget address. Over many decades Dominican planners have administered the same medicine to the social and economic ills affecting Dominican communities. It has not worked but they keep trying the same measures and, inexplicably, expect different results. If he was alive today, Albert Einstein would tell them that this is madness. Remember Einstein defined madness as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
In this year's budget debate we expect the usual clamour about the high or low levels of poverty and unemployment, about the poor or hopeful state of the economy, about corruption and inefficiency or about Dominica being the best or worst island in the Caribbean. Government will say one thing and the opposition will paint a completely different picture of the same rock that we all call Dominica. Unfortunately, this will leave the electorate, during this election year, with little choice but to see reality with glasses tainted with red or blue. And vote accordingly.