Her three-hour maiden speech to the House of Representatives yesterday was not a budget of consumption but one investing in the future, and often unglamorously continued the ongoing capital programmes, with the theme, “Shaping our future together”.
Economically, she encouraged individuals to invest in their future in terms of pensions, annuities and house-purchase; ecologically, she protected the environment by planning to reduce the cars on the roads and encouraging motorists to switch from gasoline to CNG (compressed natural gas); while educationally she promised free education to PhD level to any graduate earning a first-class degree.
“Each citizen must continue to seek out and take advantage of the opportunities afforded him or her,” said Nunez-Tesheira.
However for the first 90 percent of her speech, she largely repeated many of the Government’s past promises especially on infrastructure, arousing scorn from the Opposition especially Princes Town North MP Subhas Panday who held up last year’s Budget speech to point out the alleged similarities, although Nunez-Tesheira later argued that capital projects take time to implement.
The Budget was projected on a 5.6 percent growth in GDP and predicated on an oil-price of US$70 per barrel and gas-price of US$4 per mmbtu to produce energy-revenues of $19.9 billion, plus non-energy revenues of $29.5 billion. The main allocations were to Education and Training ($7.12 billion), Infrastructure including “Works and Transport” and “Public Utilities” ($6.59 billion), Health ($4.34 billion), National Security ($4.73 billion), Agriculture ($2.18 billion) and Housing ($1.63 billion).
To reduce traffic congestion (and the resultant road rage and stress), Nunez-Tesheira increased the motor vehicle tax on imported private vehicles according to engine-size as of today in a move that would raise $525 million in revenue.
The Government will reduce the $2.4 billion gasoline subsidy by boosting CNG use over the next two years, including removing VAT and duty from gasoline-to-CNG conversion kits, converting all public service vehicles to CNG, and increasing the number of CNG service stations. Meanwhile the price of premium gasoline used by “high end” cars will be raised from $3 to $4 per litre bringing “savings” of $200 million, while retaining the old price for diesel and super- unleaded so there would be no fare-hike by maxi-taxis and other public transport vehicles.
Senior citizens are to get a free ferry pass for travel between Trinidad and Tobago effective October 1, at a cost of $5 million.
Stamp-duty is to be removed for houses valued under $850,000 (compared to a $450,000 current ceiling) inclusive of public housing, in a measure to cost $30 million.
Students earning first-class degrees will be entitled to scholarships to study up to PhD level at any local or foreign institution, to encourage the country’s best and brightest to explore new frontiers and so engage in research to aid the country’s development. Further, some $40 million is allocated to increase from $20,000 to $30,000 the ceiling of the subsidy paid to post-graduate students under the GATE and HELP programmes as 50 percent of their tuition fees.
Nunez-Tesheira also increased the level of grants and pensions. The disability grant rose from $1,110 to $1,300 at a cost of $40 million. The public assistance grant from a current range of $650-to-$1,250 up to a range of $850-to-$1,450, to benefit 21,000 people at a cost of $50 million.
The senior citizens grant increased from $1,650 to as much as $1,950 (to help 80,000 people at a cost of $240 million), the same new level of the retired public servants pension which benefits 27,000 people at a cost of $70 million.
The allocation on the Smart Card rose from a current range of $300-to-$500 to a range of $410-to- $700, according to family-size.
While constantly heckled by the Opposition for lacking new initiatives, Nunez-Tesheira persevered unfazed to present what Information Minister Neil Parsanlal later said were updates on capital projects which cannot be implemented just within a year. Little was said about crime, apart from the Special Anti-crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT), and there was little in the way of new, direct interventions against high food-prices and inflation.
Nunez-Tesheira said the Cuban-run Tucker Valley mega-farm began operation in June and would produce crops in the last quarter of 2008, while the model farm at PCS Nitrogen would begin crop production from next month. However as she spoke of building agricultural roads and tackling praedial larceny, Subhas Panday erupted in derision as to what he had considered long-broken promises.
She said phase one of the long-promised water taxi service was at an advanced stage, again promoting Opposition scepticism.
In another update, Nunez-Tesheira said the International Financial Centre would be facilitated by establishment of a tax-friendly special purpose economic zone, and by a new regulatory Securities Act due for Parliament.
For Tobago, she announced changes to stamp duty to facilitate the inter-generational transfer of land among citizens. Saying Tobago would get $2.65 billion from the Budget comprised of $1.59 billion in recurrent expenditure, $400 million in development and $657 million under other heads of expenditure, she declared, “Tobago has received virtually everything they requested in this fiscal year.”
The Oppostiion scoffed when she said the controversial CEPEP programme would be placed under a special purpose state company.
On education, she vowed to expand the school-feeding programme from a current 50 percent of pupils to 75 percent, while perhaps less impressively she repeated long-standing promises to build more nursery schools.
Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar will reply for the Opposition on Friday.