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Economist Marla Dukharan

Economist Marla Dukharan says the 2021/2022 Budget presentation lacked transparency and accountability because the country was not told how much money was collected, spent and borrowed in the last fiscal year.

Speaking on Akash Vaani’s Morning Panchayat programme yesterday, Dukharan said she has never been so confused listening to a budget presentation.

On Monday, Finance Minister presented a $52.4 billion budget in Parliament.

“This is the first time in my life that I am aware that a Finance Minister has presented the budget where he has given his revenue estimates and his expenditure estimates and his deficit for this fiscal year starting October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022, but he has not given us any numbers for the last fiscal year,” Dukharan said.

She said in their budget presentations, finance ministers usually reveal the actual revenue collected, expenditure and the deficit for the previous year. She said she felt as though Imbert told the country only half of what he was supposed to and called the situation unacceptable.

“There was no accountability for what he collected in revenue last fiscal year, what he spent it on and what the difference was and how he made up that difference: whether he borrowed, got it from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund, from the IMF, he told us nothing.”

Dukharan said after she and several others raised the issue on Monday night, they checked the supplementary documents, such as the draft expenditure, released along with the Budget presentation, and found some figures.

However, she said her interpretation of those figures may be incorrect.

“From my calculation, the actual deficit last year was anywhere between $14.7 billion TT and $20.7 billion TT but the Finance Minister has not told us exactly what it is.”

Dukharan said from those documents, it seems as though Imbert missed the revenue target set for 2021. This is not unique, she said as he has missed every revenue target set since 2015.

But Dukharan also explained why the revenue target is important.

“When you create revenue expectation from the oil and gas sector, if we collect more than we budgeted, a certain amount has to be put into the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund. And when you overestimate your revenue, you are less likely to go over that overestimate.”

This means the deposits to the HSF will likely be less, she said.

She said in Monday’s presentation, the Finance Minister budgeted for $43.3 billion in revenue with $12.6B coming from the oil and gas sector.

She said given trends in that sector over the past three years, this estimate makes her very uncomfortable.

“He is projecting to get more from oil and gas this year than the past three years and at the same time, our production figures have gone down, so this is all based on prices going up but our natural gas production averaged the lowest levels since 2004.”

She said monthly LNG production was also down significantly from 2020 levels.

Dukharan said from the figures she got in the supplementary budget documents, expenditure was listed at $50B, $2B less than was budgeted. But she said this could be “window dressing.”

“When you don’t pay your bills, your expenditure figure will appear much lower than it ought to have if you had paid your bills,” she explained.

She said the figure was misleading at best and the $9B listed in Monday’s Budget as the 2022 deficit does not seem to align with the deficit from 2021.

Dukharan also expressed scepticism that Imbert would be able to balance the budget by 2024. She said the last time the country achieved a small surplus in its budget was in 2009 under the then Patrick Manning-led administration.

“So I cannot understand how in the context of a crisis and post-crisis, he is expecting to balance his budget in three years, I really don’t think it is going to happen.”