Putting off the hard decisions
No one would want to be Finance Minister right now, and that adds to the mystery of why Premier Paula Cox kept the portfolio when she did not have to.
As stated in Thursday’s editorial, Ms Cox is stuck between a rock and a hard place this year, given that cutting spending and raising tax revenues both bear risks.
So Ms Cox took the worst option of all. She did raise some minor taxes, and she has tried to cut some spending. But mainly she has followed the same path she has taken for at least the last two years. She has piled on more debt, thrown in some accounting stunts and avoided the hard decisions she should be taking.
And as noted elsewhere, apart from a few ideas abut taxing passing aircraft and trawlers which probably won’t come to fruition this year, if ever, she has said nothing about how Government plans to expand the economy the only answer to the mess we’re in.
For the record, in the past two years, Bermuda added $500 million in debt.
Ms Cox says this year she will add another $170 million of debt this year, according to the Budget projections.
If past experience is any guide, it will be higher. Government says Bermuda will run a Budget deficit this year of $174 million. But last year it said the deficit would be $146 million and it turned out to be $267 million a miss of $120 million or 80 percent higher than the original projection.
It can be argued that it is difficult to predict the future. But when you overestimate tax revenues by $70 million, there is something wrong.
And when you fail to control your spending by the same amount, it means that you have given up any semblance of financial discipline.
It can rightly be argued that some people must be helped. But that does not explain why Government cut the allocation for financial assistance by $10 million to $24 million last year when anyone could see that the demand for financial assistance was not going to drop and was likely to rise and it did, by $2 million to $36 million.
So last year’s supposed saving of $10 million was always a fraud.
It’s one thing to say that you are going to freeze hiring and freeze spending on wages and salaries, but how is it that Government spending on salaries not only rose by $14 million over last year’s estimates, but is projected to rise by another $7 million this year?
Even if Government manages to stay within its Budget, Ms Cox has engaged in more accounting wheezes to make the numbers look better than they are.
These are now becoming too numerous to mention, but last year, Ms Cox stopped counting loan guarantees as debt in order to free up borrowing room. This year she took $50 million out of the sinking fund to service debt, thus reducing this year’s deficit from $224 million to $174 million with the stroke of a pen.
And she was able to reduce spending by arbitrarily suspending payments to the civil service pension fund, which is already desperately underfunded.
Dropping pension contributions and piling on debt simply puts off hard decisions. It places the burden of paying the debt off onto future generations and places the pensions and secure retirements of Bermudians at risk.
Ms Cox has argued vigorously that her policies have prevented greater job losses and austerity measures would have made things worse.
But what this Budget demonstrates most clearly is that the Government has no plan beyond getting the Progressive Labour Party through the next general election.