Today’s Opinion: Instruction time

POSTED: 04/1/11 1:01 PM

It finally happened: the financial supervisor has advised the Kingdom Council of Ministers to give St. Maarten an instruction – the ultimate measure at its disposal to solve the 2011 budget woes.

Did St. Maarten bring this upon itself? Is the financial supervisor unreasonable?

Let’s first establish that the island has been in financial dire straits for quite some time. St. Maarten and balanced budgets have been like fire and water for decades, and 2011, with the first quarter already gone, is no exception.

Of course, in the past the Island Council passed balanced budgets without much discussion. People who have attended budget meetings in the past know that they were primarily a forum to ask a thousand questions about anything and everything, but seldom was there a question about the budget itself.

Those balanced budgets proved to be figments of the government’s imagination time and again. Of course it is possible that these financial reports were drawn up with the best of intentions, and that unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances caused the annual financial reports to show consistent deficits.

But there are few takes for this theory. The balanced budgets have shown to be paper tigers over the years, and the political will to steer the ship of state in the right direction has always been utterly feeble.

One of the key causes of St. Maarten’s financial woes are a lack of discipline on many levels. It is not just the lack of tax compliance, which stands at a measly 35 percent at best; the lack of discipline is also found in financial management, in administrative skills, in the true will to stick to a budget, and in the failure to improve in spite of the many ills that have been revealed in reports from the general audit chamber over the years.

No, the fact that the Cft has now taken the step to ask the Kingdom Council of Ministers to give the young Friendly Country an instruction to fix the budget is of our own making.

It were a simplification to just look at the income of our members of parliament and claim that this explains everything. Nevertheless, while a member of the Dutch parliament makes a bit more than $120,000 per year before taxes, a member of St. Maarten’s mini-parliament that represents the interests of at most 50,000 people, brings home $125,000 before taxes plus generous benefits. Dutch parliamentarians have those benefits as well, obviously, but the idea that the salaries for our parliamentarians are seriously out of whack seems to be beyond discussion.

An interesting exercise would be to compare the true cost of our government and its civil service with that of other small nations and to define it as a percentage of the budget. We do not have such figures at the ready at this moment, but we are pretty sure that they would confirm what we have been suspecting all along – that our politicians are taking care too well of themselves.

That would not necessarily be a bad thing if the citizens got something solid in return – like a balanced budget, or a government that behaved in such a way that it would get the Kingdom Council of Ministers of our back.

True, the members of parliament are not making the budget – the Finance Ministry does – so the ball is for the time being in Hiro Shigemoto’s park, so to speak.

Against the background of the budget woes it is near impossible to explain to the average citizen where all that money comes from for trips to, say, Panama City or New York City, or even to explain why these trips are necessary at all.

Are there not more urgent things to deal with? We’re thinking about the lack of prison cell capacity, the lack of decent facilities for mental health care, the struggling school system, our infrastructure – and on and on.

But no, pour politicians happily move from one day to the next, fly to far away destinations for no apparent reason, and wait until the hammer comes down.

That has now happened: the Cft is on the instruction war path. That does not mean immediately that the Kingdom Council of Ministers will honor the request, but it sure as hell puts a lot of pressure on the government to finally do what needs to be done.

If tough measures are necessary to balance the budget – take those tough measures. There are plenty of options available, options that have not been explored for one reason or another.

The candidacy of casino-bookkeeper Rudolf Baetsen to a prominent position at the Central Bank suggests that the government will leave the casinos to their own devices, while everybody knows that this is one of the sectors where the money is. Gaming Control Board? Forget it. In spite of multiple announcements, this is not going to happen any time soon; we’ve heard the optimistic announcements for years but we have never seen a y results. And as we all know, results don’t lie.

Therefore, the fact that there is no Gaming Control Board yet, is a matter of political unwell. The fact that we have no balanced budget is the result of political unwell. The fact that there are no plans to tax casinos in a different way is also a matter of political unwell, as is the fact that tax compliance is way below par.

So why does nobody seem to be overly concerned about an instruction from those darn Dutch? That’s so simple, it’s almost unbelievable. While an instruction implies higher supervision, the island has dealt with higher supervision before – in the nineties of last century.

And guess what: it did not work, and there is therefore no urgency at all to listen to the financial supervisor or the fret about instructions that are at most bad publicity, but that will never have the effect that the Kingdom Council of Ministers has in mind. Duh.


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