(OBSERVER)The country will be listening with keen interest today as Finance Minister and Prime Minister Gaston Browne delivers the national budget, with many eager to learn how he plans to steer the country forward amid economic challenges propelled by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Important on the minds of the population is whether their already stretched dollars will be taxed further – and just how those who already feel they’re at the bottom of the barrel will survive the times ahead.
Browne, whose party was re-elected into office with a greatly reduced majority at the January 18 general election, is expected to outline just how much money his Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party-led government intends to collect and spend this fiscal year.
Leader of the Opposition Jamale Pringle told Observer that the government first needs to outline how it intends to reduce the high cost of living in Antigua and Barbuda.
“This is what we want to hear. We want to hear a budget that can clearly outline and address how they would deal with the cost of living as it relates to inflation,” Pringle said.
He said insufficient running water – a subject that formed a major part of the election campaign – is another area the United Progressive Party is hoping will be given attention in the budget.
“They would have campaigned on that water issue for the last 10 years and we are still seeing the same situation. They installed a few reverse osmosis plants…and one would have thought that we would have seen some improvements, yet some areas are up to three weeks without water,” he claimed.
Pringle said initiatives to grow the private sector should also be paramount in the budget, along with late pension payments and improving services at the country’s main hospital, the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre.
Meanwhile, UPP Senator Shawn Nicholas is hoping that Thursday’s budget presentation will shed light on some of the loan agreements the government entered into during its previous two terms in office.
Nicholas, who is the Senate minority leader, outlined concerns that, despite the financial challenges, the Browne administration continues to increase borrowing.
She said, with the presentation of the 2023 budget, the Opposition wants a clearer picture on how deeply in debt the country is, how its money was spent, and on what.
Nicholas said she is hoping that Browne will also announce measures to reduce Antigua and Barbuda’s debt stock.
Chaneil Imhoff, spokesperson for the Democratic National Alliance which failed to secure any seats at the last election, told Observer that all eyes are on the economy and residents should not be taxed further.
She said, additionally, there should be a proper restructuring of the taxation system, “to ensure the burden is placed where it ought to be and not on persons who are making less”.
Imhoff, who has been very outspoken about inadequate mental health services, said she is also hoping that sufficient allocations will be made in that area.
“This is something that has been placed on the back burner for quite some time, but when you look at the news you see all these cases of homelessness and mental health crises so we are hoping to hear about the investment in Clarevue,” she said, referring to the country’s sole psychiatric hospital.
The diversification of the Antiguan and Barbudan economy is another area that Imhoff is hoping the budget will address.
“Covid-19 has shown us that we can’t depend on just tourism. We need to diversify our tourism product because it’s not going anywhere. We need to see how we can diversify the economy as well,” she explained.
She said too often new projects are tourism-based, but in order to bolster the economy these developments must be broad-based.
Imhoff also wants greater focus to be placed on the youth, with more opportunities made available for them.
“Opportunities are more than just a 9-5 job. Opportunities in interparental space, agriculture…opportunities to be given a voice about what is going on in this country,” Imhoff added.
Last year, Browne presented a EC$1.64 billion budget to the House of Representatives, with a pledge that there would be no new taxes introduced in 2022.