Turnquest: Former admin left $700 million in unpaid bills

Deputy Prime and Minister of Finance, Peter Turnquest.

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – Finance Minister K. Peter Turnquest said while the public is aware that the government met hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid bills when it came to office in May 2017, the full tally of those bills and obligations is now well past $700 million.

“The lion’s share of these bills was never included in any budget brought to Parliament, which means that the deficit positions they published were, in fact, worse than indicated,” Turnquest revealed Sunday in an issued statement.

“The Opposition spokesman claims that we ought to ‘amortize’ these bills – for products and services already delivered – many by small Bahamian vendors who have had to wait a year or more to get paid.

“His idle recommendation essentially is that we should have asked these vendors to continue to wait and to pay them at our leisure, even as they are carrying expensive overdrafts caused by the former government.

“This statement alone should disqualify him from consideration for any senior policy position!”

Turnquest was responding to recent claims made by the Opposition’s shadow minister of finance, Chester Cooper, who recently commented on the government’s 2018 Fiscal Strategy Report.

Turnquest said it has become customary, albeit regrettable, that Cooper would seek to denigrate the unprecedented and historic steps taken by the government to improve public accountability and transparency.

“He persists in his amnesia regarding the four consecutive downgrades occasioned when his party was in government. He seems willfully and blissfully ignorant of the dire state of affairs this government inherited when it came to office,” Turnquest said.

As Minister of Finance, Turnquest said he is exceedingly proud that – unlike the previous administration – the government has kept its promise to implement Fiscal Responsibility Legislation and with it, a Fiscal Strategy Report which – for the first time – provides all citizens with the plans for how the government will spend its money.

“It is because of this report that, for the first time in living memory, Bahamians have been informed formally of the provisional outturn of the prior fiscal year within five months of the end of the year.

“This is something that used to take 11 months or longer. Moreover, the government has officially set a course to fiscal stability that will rectify the years of fiscal imprudence by the previous administration,” Turnquest said.

The finance minister said Cooper mentioned the 33 per cent overrun of the deficit, but failed to mention additional key facts.

Turnquest said last fiscal year saw a reduction in the deficit of $246 million from that of the final year of the former PLP government (2016/17). This, he said, is a 37 per cent reduction that finally reversed the continually rising deficits of the previous government.

According to Turnquest, the former PLP administration missed its deficit target in that year by $561 million and from the fiscal year 2014/2015 through to 2016/17, the former administration missed its deficit targets by 33 per cent, 120 per cent and 561 per cent respectively.

“In none of the five years of its term did the former administration meet its budgeted revenue targets,” Turnquest said.

“Strangely enough, despite his propensity now to comment on fiscal matters, Cooper was not only silent while the former administration was driving the country off a fiscal cliff, he openly endorsed and supported the very Christie/Davis leadership team that had led the country to the four consecutive downgrades! Where was his care and concern for fiscal matters then? Or is it that he only speaks up when he finds it politically convenient to do so,” Turnquest asked.

The finance minister said “without any sense of shame”, Cooper pointed to the fact that the Debt to GDP ratio has risen from 54.6 per cent to 57.8 per cent, and did this knowing full well that it was the “recklessness of his colleagues” that caused this ramp up in debt.

“He should be comforted though to know that it will be this administration that will bring the Debt to GDP ratio back to acceptable levels as outlined in the same fiscal strategy report,” Turnquest said.

Turnquest stated further that the Opposition spokesman once again brought up the former government’s revenue enhancement team. He said, however, that this team was reportedly set up and staffed with no Cabinet or legal authority to do so.

“It engaged a foreign consultancy firm at $900,000 per month with no evidence of Cabinet approval. It engaged a foreign team of accountants with no plans whatsoever to recruit and train a Bahamian audit team. Most of all, there was nothing in the contract or in any documented work plan to have the foreign firm and foreign auditors transfer the training and know-how to the Bahamian counterparts. And seeing that the former administration missed every revenue target they set for themselves, it is difficult to understand the Member’s claims for their success.” Turnquest said.

According to Turnquest, the government and the Ministry have already begun to make the changes that will get the country back to fiscal stability and improve its long-term economic prospects.

“We have implemented the Fiscal Responsibility Bill and published the Fiscal Strategy Report – and we have detailed all relevant information openly and honestly,” he said.

“We are publishing quarterly budget reports to keep the public informed of how we are collecting and spending their money.

“We have obtained Cabinet and Parliamentary approval to establish a revenue enhancement unit properly.

“We will shortly be engaging more than 40 Audit and Accounting professionals to substantially boost accountability and oversight across the government. We will be training Bahamians to take over the value-added tax (VAT) auditing done now by foreign auditors,” Turnquest said.

The finance minister concluded that the government will not be deterred by the naysayers.

“We will not pay attention to those persons – like the Opposition spokesman for Finance – who was and is all too content to endorse the Davis leadership that led our country to four consecutive downgrades while he refused to speak up with the same vigour that he now employs.

“We are establishing an unassailable foundation for fiscal transparency and accountability that will ensure we never return to the dark days of the past administration.”