As he showered gifts on what he obviously hopes would be a grateful electorate, the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance was calm, confident and in control.
The Minister of Finance’s $42 billion Budget, which is based on a US$50 a barrel oil price, was delivered in the House of Representives in three and a quarter hours.
The big voter-catcher was a 15 percent salary increase for workers in CEPEP and URP and the reforestation programme, plus backpay for all of them. The PM was also generous to a fault with the pensioners, giving a $1,000 increase for some 60,000 NIS pensioners, plus he bestowed an extra $3,000 backpay for all public service pensioners.
Old age pensioners would receive yet another increase so that they all get $1,650 per month while the minimum public service pension would also be raised to $1,650 per month, Manning said.
The PM also announced an increase in the minimum wage from $9 to $10 an hour “with the intention to go higher in the future.”
The Disability Grant would be increased as well as Public Assistance Grants which will go up from $470 to $650 a month for one person, from $710 to $900 for two persons; from $920 to $1,100 for three persons and from $1090 to $1250 for four persons and above. Some 21,000 persons would benefit from this measure which will cost the State $38M, the Prime Minister said.
And to the tens of thousands suffering from diabetes, he assured that they would get free diabetic testing strips via an expanded CDAP.
On the downside, the PM increased NIS contributions payable by employees and employers.
The “slow and gradual” increase in contributions would rise from its current rate of 9.9 percent to 10.15 per cent in 2008, with further increases to 10.8 percent and 11.4 per cent in 2010 and 2012 respectively, the Prime Minister said.
The Minister of Finance however compensated for this by increasing the income tax deduction for pensions and annuities from $12,000 to $25,000 per annum.
He was forgiving to those who filed tax returns late, announcing an amnesty for tax penalties and interest on income and corporation tax returns, up to 2006. These persons and companies must file outstanding returns by April 30, 2008, he said. And Manning was also benevolent to victims of uninsured drivers announcing Government proposed to use the proceeds of the Insurance Premium Tax to establish a fund to deal with these unfortunate casualties. However, he served notice that legislation would be coming to ban the use of cellular phones and TV monitors in vehicles. He also announced the Airport Departure Tax would be replaced with a Passenger Service Charge imposed by the Airports Authority on the travel ticket of all those who currently are eligible to pay the Airport Tax. Manning also stated the deposit insurance would be raised from $50,000 to $75,000 without an increase in the premium level.
Erring on the side of caution, the PM stayed completely silent on gambling. (SEE PAGE 14A).
As he delivered the Budget, Manning laughed off much of the Opposition taunts, trumpeting the accomplishments of his administration. He was unrepentant about Government’s social policy.
“They (the Opposition) allege that helping the downtrodden and disadvantaged contributes to the creation of a dependency syndrome.
We approach this problem differently and that is why nurturing a caring society is one of our major developmental priorities. It’s a love thing,” he declared, to supportive desk-thumping. It is the final budget of this administration but Manning made it clear that the PNM intended to be back (in government). He simulated platform rhetoric with his rousing climax.
“In their hearts the people are very satisfied...they know that it is all being done with integrity, transparency and accountability. The people remember the horrible years of a previous administration, when this nation was plagued with a level of dishonesty, drift, divisiveness and downright decadence. And the country will not be fooled again. And so, with this Budget, like with everything else we have done, we invite the judgment of the people...we are not here for ourselves, our private pockets and bank accounts.
“And we know that notwithstanding the contortions, fabrications and exaggerations that will be produced by some in the coming days, this Budget and this Government will find great favour with the people,” he stated to thunderous table-thumping.
Debate resumes on Friday with the response from the Opposition Leader Kamla Persad- Bissessar.