Prime Minister Allen Chastanet will present his first ever budget to Parliament on Wednesday since his ruling United Workers Party (UWP) won the June 2016 general elections.
Chastanet is expected to present a fiscal package totalling EC$1.5 billion (One EC dollar =US$0.37 cents) and estimated EC$349.5 million than the last budget.
The budgetary process will begin on Tuesday following the traditional Throne Speech Governor General Dame Pearlette Louisy heralding a new session of Parliament.
Political observers said this is likely to be the last year in which the budget period will be divided into two parts, a feature introduced by former prime minister Dr. Kenny Anthony during 2012/2013 financial year.
Anthony said then that the change would ensure the budget presentation and debate was done in accordance with the Standing Orders of the House of Assembly.
But Prime Minister Chastanet told reporters that initial talks have been held with Opposition Leader, Philip J. Pierre, on reverting to the old system.
“Government has engaged the Opposition in discussions early enough on the budget process to see how both sides could agree on going back to having one process.
“I want to thank (the Opposition Leader) for taking my call and for the input he made on the process. I think we agreed (to) let’s continue this process,” Chastanet said, adding “I am hoping that the next time we have the budget, we can assimilate those two budget processes. But it would require the support and collaboration of the Opposition.”
Chastanet said that he wanted to ensure the Opposition members were not disadvantaged by not having information in attempts to shorten the budget period, which includes two debates, one on the Estimates of Expenditure and the other on policy, expected in the second week of next month.
“We tried to do that this year but given the fact we could only get the budget information out the Friday before the Throne Speech, we felt it inadequate,” Chastanet said.
Having announced a new VAT rate in October last year as part of “Five to Stay Alive” initiative, the government has indicated its plans to reinstate the airport tax, which was discontinued by the former government when it returned to office in 2011.
There are also reports of plans to introduce a tax on gas sales to help finance government road reconstruction programme, which is estimated at EC$200 million.
Chastanet said that the Airport Redevelopment Charge which he is seeking to reintroduce, is not new insisting that the tax would not affect the island’s tourism sector.
“In fact if we had kept this charge we would have collected in excess of EC$200 million which is half of the monies needed to build the new airport,” he noted.
Chastanet said during the review it was discovered that most of the other Caribbean countries charge about US$100, saying that in essence St Lucia has been foregoing US$75 per passenger or EC$100 million in revenue annually.
“Reintroducing this charge will also be less onerous on the citizens of this country and will significantly contribute to decreasing our national debt as a percentage of the monies raised will be allocated to a sinking fund. This is additional revenue which will be set aside so St Lucia can begin to take care of itself.”
However that is likely to be the extent of any major tax measures in the budget with the Prime Minister having already undertaken a review of the current tax regime and given the assurance that the overall objective of the government’s tax policy is to grow the economy.
“The goal is to reduce the tax burden on the population, while making the tax system more business and investment friendly and most critically ensuring fiscal sustainability,” he said in an earlier address.
Chastanet said that in June 2016, St. Lucians challenged his UWP to lead and to govern, adding that while they inherited a broken and frail economy, and are governing in a time of great economic and fiscal hardship, “we shall live up to those expectations”.
He said despite the present economic climate, government’s main concern is bringing some measure of immediate relief to the struggling people of this country; to get business flowing once again.
“This is one of the reasons we have pushed ahead with implementing our “Five to Stay Alive” proposal despite those who said it could not be done,” he said, noting that his administration had already decreased the licence fees for vehicles.
“I know that motorists throughout the island took a collective sigh of relief and are appreciative that we were able to lessen this burden on their backs,” he said, adding that another component of “Five to Stay Alive” initiative achieved has been the increase in the school bus subsidy and expanding the school feeding programme.
“As we stated clearly in our manifesto taking care of our nation’s children is at the forefront of our priorities. We want to ensure that our children get to school safely and that they are well fed and ready to learn without having to be concerned about where their next meal is coming from. Children should not have to be burdened with these thoughts.”
Prime Minister Chastanet said he was also pleased that the three-year Residential Tax Amnesty, another of the” Five to Stay Alive” initiative which went into effect from January 1 this year.
“We know that almost everyone’s dream is to own a piece of land and a home in their country and government must assist where we can to make this dream a reality. We are acutely aware that people are finding it more difficult to pay their mortgages and this three-year grace period will go a long way in helping home owners meet their obligations.”
Chastanet said another promise of economic initiative is a targeted amnesty on healthcare services, noting that too many people are dying because of high medical costs.
“To have come into office when we did and put together a supplementary budget based on what we were left with would have been a waste of time and resources.
“We did not come into government to waste time. We are instead proposing a four-year strategic development plan for this country. A road map to keep us on course; to help guide us to building a prosperous St Lucia for all.”
He said the government’s four year plan will be all encompassing and focus on areas of healthcare reform, education, agriculture, security, public sector reform, the financial services sector and infrastructural development among others.
Chastanet said that the details of this ground-breaking approach was discussed with social and economic partners in the run up to the budget.
“We cannot continue to throw the same solutions at the same problems and expect to get a different outcome. It is vital that we adopt a different approach, one that will yield a more progressive result.
“It is evident that some of what could not have been achieved in four and a half years by the previous administration has been made possible by my government in the first five months. This shows that we are a government who is ready to put St. Lucia back on the path of economic and fiscal growth,” Chastanet said, urging St. Lucians to have hope.
“I am asking you to believe that things can change and get better if we all come together to rebuild this country.
“My government will continue to take pride in being a government of accountability, transparency and results focused. Make no mistake the ultimate goal of this government is to ensure that Saint Lucia rises once again.
“So I urge you my fellow St. Lucians, let us all be part of the solution and not the problem. I believe that what unites all of us should be our commitment to St. Lucia,” Chastanet added.