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The 2015/2016 budget debate was passed in the House early Thursday morning, around 4:30am.
The House proceedings were not without some drama where the government moved for closure of the debate under House rule 33 resulting in a standoff between government members, the Speaker and the member for Fort Charlotte who insisted on speaking. In the end the House Speaker permitted the member from Fort Charlotte to deliver his budget contribution and in the process the member for Fort Charlotte, Dr. Andre Rollins resigned from the Progressive Liberal Party.
Another important development was the revelation by the Prime Minister that he received goods from the China Import/Export Bank regarding the Baha Mar Resort project. PM Christie said he would meet with Baha Mar CEO Sarkis Izmirlian at the earliest convenience to discuss the way forward.
Below are some of the budget highlights from presentations by the Hon. Damian Gomez, State Minister for Legal Affairs; the Hon. D. Shane Gibson, Minister of Labour, National Insurance and the Public Service; and the Hon. Obie Wilchcombe, Minister of Tourism.
Hon. Damian Gomez:
Mr. Gomez focused on the effectiveness of the Swift Justice Initiative and provided statistical data to support his claim that this policy was working.
- Ten new courts are fully operational and prove that Swift Justice is working as the huge backlog of cases is being addressed.
- Number of trials completed increased from 118 in 2012 to 200 in 2014, an increase of 69%.
- With 10 additional courts, the projected number of matters to be heard in 2015 is 348.
- The AG’s Office has brought an estimated 496 cases to trial since May 2012 and an estimated 200 more are expected by the end of 2015.
- Regarding bail applications in 2014 for persons charged with serious crimes against the person including murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, abetment and causing harm, 33 applicants were granted bail; 69 were denied bail; 22 had their variations granted; 3 had their variations denied; 6 had their bail revoked; and 25 had their bail applications dismissed.
Hon. Obie Wilchcombe:
The Minister’s message was simply that Bahamas tourism was on the rebound and improving. He provided Key Performance Indicators, or KPI’s to support his assertions.
- Overall tourist arrivals increased by 2.8%.
- Air arrivals increased by 4.9%, bringing the 2014 total to 1.3 million.
- Sea arrivals grew by 2.2%, bringing that total to 5 million.
- Arrivals at major ports of call grew from 0.6% to 6.3%
- In addition to the new gaming regulations generating some $30 million for the public treasury in licensing fees alone, the policy to regulate the industry has protected the integrity of the financial services sector and the international reputation of The Bahamas by eliminating the international concerns about money laundering and the proceeds from crime.
- Numerous tourism field offices were opened along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in Florida, the Midwest and on the west coast.
- Numerous airline gates were opened throughout Canada and the United States.
- The Ministry saved millions of dollars from canceling the retainers with foreign marketers, promoters and PR agents in favour of using Bahamian talents to promote and market The Bahamas internationally. The Minister heaped much praise on the Bahamian talent and the results they produced for the country.
- The Minister credited sports, heritage and romance tourism for the turnaround. He mentioned the co-branding initiative with sports franchises, mega events such as the IAAF World Relays, the Popeye Bowl, the LPGA events and the huge Tiger Woods invitational scheduled for later this year. Mr. Wilchcombe also advised of a Beach championship event to be held in The Bahamas in 2016.
Hon. D. Shane Gibson:
- Minister Gibson focused heavily on the reform and modernization of the public service with technical assistance from the Commonwealth Secretariat.
- The government has concluded negotiations with the teachers union and negotiations are ongoing with the educators’ management, the air traffic controllers, customs and immigration, the nurses and the doctors unions.
- The Ministry of Labour has established the Policy and Planning Unit in consultation with the Commonwealth Secretariat at an initial cost of $54,000. A full-fledged policy and planning unit will liaise with the National Development Plan Committee and guide the creation and management of the Strategic Plan for the Ministry of the Public Service.
- Since 2012, some 43 agencies/ministries/units have benefitted from improved and increased work surroundings through new leases.
- With the assistance of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the government will establish a Public Service College to address the developmental and skill set needs of senior management in the public service from Permanent Secretaries down, to fill what the Prime Minister characterized as the “hollow middle.” The scope of the college will include ministry specific training, a Distinguished Lecture Series Program, assessment review for Administrative Cadets and First Assistant Secretaries, attachments and the re-introduction of the Advanced Diploma in Public Administration.
- Two bills are now before Parliament. One is to allow special payments to survivors of a public servant killed while on duty. The second is the amended pension act that will significantly reduce the waiting time for benefit payment to the family of a deceased relative whose post required the public servant to be under oath.
- The government proposed to bring the weekly minimum wage in the private sector ($150) in line with the public sector’s minimum wage of $210 per week.
- The NIB has funded the construction of the mini hospital in Exuma, the mini hospital in Abaco and has the mini hospital for South Eleuthera on the drawing boards.