Opinion: Interesting times

POSTED: 05/9/14 10:35 AM

We are going towards interesting times, and not just because there will be elections on August 29. We are looking ahead at 2015, the mother of all years (for the time being) in the history of country St. Maarten.

Already now the number crunchers on Clem Labega Square are scratching their heads. They must find credible solutions for the problem of all problems – how to put together a balanced 2015 budget that looks good on paper and that looks so realistic that the Cft will give it a positive advice.

There is for instance the little matter of the 20 million guilders deficit from the disastrous year 2013 to deal with. It represents just 4.7 percent of the 2014 budget, so it does not look overly dramatic. The thing is, the country will have to compensate for this deficit in the next four months.

Okay, maybe there is a bit more time, until the end of this year, but that is about it. Finance Minister Hassink has three options: gamble on a 20 million surplus in the 2014 budget, present a budget amendment to absorb the deficit in this year’s budget, or shove the problem into the 2015 budget.

The Cft expects the 2015 budget by September 1 – hence the earlier mentioned four-month time span. While miracles happen –if you have to believe the claims some people do not get tired of making in this department – a surplus would be a unique event in the history of St. Maarten. Even though revenue for the first quarter of the year is 3 million guilders above budget, everyone knows that the low season is going to bite those revenues in the butt. When the books are closed on 2014, there will be no surplus. No deficit would be the real miracle.

That leaves two other options. A budget amendment for 2014 would mean that the 20 million will have to be taken away from – exactly, from where? It is not like the 2014 budget is so loaded with frills and luxury – that a junior bookkeeper is able to take those 20 million away somewhere without anybody noticing. It will be a painful exercise, one that will hurt in all the wrong places.

The third option then would be to make this a 2015 problem. Moving the solution into the future is quite similar to sticking one’s head in the sand. It will not make any difference.

Oh, wait, there is of course one difference: we are going to have elections and if the parliament has to vote before August 29 on a budget that is going to hurt certain parts of the community, MPs will not think about the right thing to do for their country, but about the right thing to do to get re-elected.

Come to think of it, there is a fourth possibility and that is to divide the pain between 2014 and 2015. Or should the government simply ask the harbor and the airport to come up with the money?

Quips aside, the next step in this process is the evaluation of the financial supervision system. The quality of the 2015 budget will play a big part in that discussion Without the Cft, former Justice Minister Roland Duncan and his cronies would have rammed his $100 million Justice Park down the throat of a lame and unaware parliament. Without the Cft – or any other form of financial supervision – we figure that the budget deficit in 2013 would have gone through the roof and we would be up to our neck in unavoidable tax-increases and all kinds of other horror measures that are guaranteed to make life of the common St. Maartener a living nightmare.

The Social Economic Council has already suggested making the Cft a permanent fixture. As far as we are able to remember, no parliamentarian has ever made a sensible remark about the need for financial supervision. Other remarks stand out more, and they all come down to the idea that the parliament is the highest authority in the country.

That is wishful thinking of course, but MPs also are entitled to their dreams. In the field of money, they are under the scrutiny of the financial supervisor, and in the field of legislation, they are under the watchful eye of the Constitutional Court – a body, by the way, that our politicians themselves established during that infamous final Island Council meeting in 2010 where they approved stacks of legislation without ever reading the content.

A case in point is the noise some politicians are now making about the Electoral Council. They behave as if the government dropped this nuclear bomb on them out of the blue, while they have been asleep themselves for the past four years. Now they have to deal with the consequences and like a kid robbed of his favorite toy, they cry foul.

Ah well, as they say, we are a young country and we still have a lot to learn. Some of these lessons will be tough, but that is okay. For some, that is the only way they will ever learn something.

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