Legislators celebrated the allocation of funds to several delayed capital projects before passing the 2023 budget on Dec. 21, but they also called attention to other stalled work and took issue with the budgetary process itself.
During the annual budget debate — which started Dec. 20 and concluded Dec. 21 when the House passed the Appropriations (2023) Act, 2022 — Speaker of the House Corine George-Massicote encouraged members to limit their comments to 45 minutes each.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, who is presiding over his first budget process as premier, used part of his time to tout the government’s recent fiscal record. Despite worldwide economic challenges, he said, the territory’s debt is manageable and revenue remains relatively stable.
“We have to see how bright and optimistic the economic picture is here in the Virgin Islands, despite inflation, despite the pandemic, despite the hurricanes,” he added.
Dr. Wheatley also compared 2023’s estimated revenue of $376 million to 2001’s $192 million, noting that the figure had nearly doubled in two decades. However, he noted that expenses have risen as well.
“We have to get our recurrent expenditures under control,” he added.
Deputy Premier Kye Rymer pointed out that this is the first budget since the Commission of Inquiry report was released in April, and he expressed his appreciation that the United Kingdom and Virgin Islands were able to reach an agreement where the territory retains control of its legislature and finances.
“I’m grateful despite the challenges, uncertainties and headwinds of 2022, because today’s debate is an important milestone in the transition of these Virgin Islands,” he said.
Debate continued on Dec. 21, when the premier thanked government staff, especially in the Ministry of Finance, for their work to prepare the budget during the end-of-year crunch and to avoid having to pass a provisional budget. He also noted that a medium-term fiscal plan is now prepared in advance of 2023.
“Even though the process isn’t perfect, and we have some areas to improve, I believe we should commend the staff for us having Standing Finance [Committee] in five days and being as efficient as we could be,” he said.
Also during the debate, legislators touted various projects slated for the coming year.
Deputy Speaker Neville Smith (R-at large), who opened the debate, said he was particularly pleased with budgeted repairs for community centres, which he said will benefit the elderly.
He also praised plans to complete the renovated House of Assembly building and to design plans for a national public library and museum next year.
“I’m happy to see there is some money for that, and that we can move forward,” he said.
Other areas, he said, are still in need of attention, including the Red Bay dock, which has been delayed for decades. Earlier this year, Dr. Wheatley and then-Opposition Leader Marlon Penn said in a community meeting that work on the planned 150-footlong dock was getting under way.
Mr. Smith said further consideration should be given to the placement of an accompanying building for processing fish. Mr. Smith also shared his hope that the government could look into purchasing land surrounding Carrot Bay’s Isabella Morris Primary School, which was destroyed by the 2017 hurricanes.
Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles took aim at a larger project, saying that more needs to be done to progress the West End ferry terminal.
Plans to build a new facility were introduced in February, but HOA members including Mr. Penn expressed concern that the funding allocated wouldn’t be enough.
Ms. Flax-Charles said Anegada is also in desperate need of a new port facility, and much needs to be done with Virgin Gorda to make it accessible.
Opposition Leader Julian Fraser also praised the VI’s freedom in budgetary affairs but he lamented recent changes made to district-specific funding. He appeared to be referring to assistance grants that were formerly disbursed at elected officials’ discretion but are now administered by the Social Development Department after the COI blasted the previous system for a lack of accountability and transparency.
Mr. Smith also drew attention to the budget process itself, questioning how matters are debated in the closed-door Standing Finance Committee.
“The real, true picture of what should be going on in Standing Finance is not happening,” he said. “That is my opinion.”
He proposed a more data-driven approach to review the needs of different agencies, rather than simply fielding requests for items like new vehicles based on statements made by department heads.
Legislators need specific financial information at their fingertips to make appropriate planning decisions, he said.
“How can we continue coming to this honourable House with a budget that we don’t have data to show how we arrived at this?” he asked. “We’re making decisions blind.”
Ms. Flax-Charles agreed, calling SFC deliberations an “exercise in futility.”
She proposed that SFC deliberations be shifted to October so the House has more time to discuss the budget.
Dr. Wheatley said holding a greater number of informal meetings with departments leading up to SFC meetings should help the process along.