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Ministries face cutbacks in 2018 budget

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Government's 2018 Budget, which is expected to be delivered before month-end, is shaping up to involve continued "serious cutbacks" in ministries' allocations.

The signal came following meetings of ministries with the Ministry of Planning and other divisions on the previous week regarding Budget aspects.

Following those meetings, Government officials said the expected time line for delivery of the 2018 package is late September.

They noted that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley returns from his United States medical check-up on September 11, and is expected to meet trade unions right after that. The current second session of Parliament also prorogues September 21.

They pointed out that the Third Session of the Parliament will begin immediately after the proroguing and announcement of the 2018 Budget date is expected at the opening of the new session, or immediately after.

A 10 to 20 per cent cut in expenditure is so far projected for most ministries, several of which are currently planning how to cope with the expected cuts.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert didn't respond to Budget queries - including on progress - up to yesterday. But other ministerial quarters have been monitoring whether the Budget may end up being less than the 2017 package of $53 billion.

Yesterday, they noted that one perk of a possible smaller Budget - around $48 billion to $49 billion - is that the deficit will be decreased. The 2017 deficit was around $6 billion to $7 billion.

The biggest challenge, Government sources said, is meeting recurrent expenditure and stimulating the economy (which they acknowledged is at standstill).

Whether this will be done by more belt-tightening and subsidy cuts, continued staff attrition/non renewal of contracts, or closure of more of the 78 state entities beyond six so far, will be worked out. They also noted continuing shortfall in VAT collections which needs addressing.

Government's signature project - the planned Sandals resort in Tobago - is also yet to be finalised. Government hasn't yet signed up anything with the Sandals group with whom negotiation talks are still continuing.

Until that is positively finalised, project officials noted yesterday, Government cannot trigger its plan to seek private sector investment from the major conglomerates to develop the resort site. Estimates are that the project will have to break ground by year-end in order to be completed by 2010/21.

The administration had said recently that local conglomerates would have been invited to participate in the project development aspect via a public/private sector partnership. The Jamaican Sandals outfit was being wooed for operation of the resort aspect.

The local company established to handle physical aspects - office establishment etcetera - has so far done topographical surveys of the Buccoo Estate for the project, from which designs are expected to flow.

Other projects expected to be carried over into the 2018 package - various ministries confirmed - include the Toco port highways along east and south Trinidad and the Diego Martin overpass, construction of the PM's residence in Tobago, completion of unfinished schools and curriculum changes to assist under-performing students, plus funding for laptops for secondary schools.

Health announcements are expected to include the direction for the Couva Hospital. A recommendation on that is due for Cabinet in two weeks.

Officials acknowledged the Finance Ministry was unable to raise the kind of revenue initially projected for 2017. They noted the First Citizens IPO share issue attracted much less than anticipated, Trinidad Generation Unlimited liquidation hadn't occurred yet nor had the disposal of CL Financial assets.

Property tax revenue also stalled due to lagging implementation. The Opposition's legal challenge to the tax is on September 21. Some Opposition MPs have started Budget consultations with groups.



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