Heated exchange in Parliament during head-by-head exercise

Heated exchange in Parliament during head-by-head exercise
Leader of the Opposition, Philip Davis.

Davis laments disparities in 2019/2020 budget, Cooper accuses govt. of creating “slush fund”

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – During the head-by-head exercise of the budget debate in the House of Assembly last night, Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis got into a heated exchange with several Cabinet ministers, including Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest, over what the opposition leader called “outrageous” disparities in various allocations of the 2019/2020 budget.

Before voting on the budget, parliamentarians go through the heads of government ministries and departments, with members of the opposition raising questions to specific allocations and other concerns stemming from the budget.

Davis, who held up a CSV spreadsheet of the budget which the government uploaded online, said numerous allocations represented in the document did not match up with the 2019/2020 budget tabled in Parliament by the Minnis administration.

He questioned whether certain allocations in various ministries could be accepted as true estimates as he raised concerns over numerous line items that had been significantly increased.

As an example, Davis pointed to the allocation in the Senate for ‘food, ice and drinking water’ — $20,000 for the upcoming budget — up from the $4,800 budget in the current fiscal year.

In response, Turnquest explained that increases reflect actual expenditure as “what happens in many budgets is they would end up burying different amounts from line items to cover the cost and we are doing here is putting the expense of the actual line item”.

But Davis said the explanation did not hold up.

He pointed out that between July 2018 and March 2019 the government spent $4,676, and asserted that the $20,000 budgeted for 2019/2020 needed to be justified. It was one of many examples the opposition leader pointed to.

Davis also pointed out that in the eight-month period, the House of Assembly spent $33,439 on food, ice and drinking water, however, the government budgeted $70,650 for 2019/2020 for this line item — an increase over nearly $40,000.

St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette offered the explanation that at a certain point of the fiscal year, the allocation has been depleted because “the allocation is insufficient”.

He said the budgeted figures were “realistic expectations” of spending and it was not an issue to make “political mischief about”.

He said, “I trust that is basic enough to try and say what we are trying to do.”

Turnquest added that the shortfall for those items in the fiscal year are typically paid for from contingencies in other ministries, including the Office of the Prime Minister’s contingency fund.

After another brief exchange, the finance minister charged that it would be helpful if Davis “knew what he was talking about,” a point to which Davis took exception.

He shot back that the government was taking offense to questions about certain discrepancies.

Turnquest described the CSV budget file uploaded of the government’s website was a data dump that may contain different numbers, and even some errors, but that was irrelevant to the budget tabled, and debated in the House which reflects true figures.

He said, “You will find there will be corrections to that data as we go through. The member thinks he has a ‘gottcha’”.

But Davis insisted it was a matter of transparency, and the opposition has a right to question figures put before the House, particularly if a document elsewhere, published by the government, differs in anyway.

Slush fund

Exuma and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper said across the heads of the budget over $40 million has been allocated for consultants, calling the sum “outrageous”.

He questioned whether the government was attempting to create a slush fund.

Turnquest refuted the claim.

He said he understood Cooper’s angst; it was unfair to lump the total figures without providing context.

He indicated that each head would have to be reviewed to explain the specific spending for consultants.

“I can assure him there is no slush fund,” the minister said.

“These funds have been examined for specific purposes.”

In the Ministry of Public Service and National Insurance, for example, $200,000 was allocated for consultancy services in 2018/2019.

The government has budgeted the same for the upcoming fiscal period.