MPs pepper PM with questions on country reform packages

MPs pepper PM with questions  on country reform packages

PM Silveria Jacobs.

 

PHILIPSBURG--Members of Parliament (MPs) on Monday posed a list of questions primarily related to the country packages to Prime Minister (PM) Silveria Jacobs during a meeting of the Central Committee of Parliament.

  One of the issues of concern raised by several MPs was the implementation of a 12.5 per cent value added tax (VAT).

  United St. Maarten Party (US Party) MP Claudius “Toontje” Buncamper asked whether there are any serious discussions about how the country would implement a 12.5 per cent VAT, given that St. Maarten shares an island with French St. Martin with no border or import control.

  He also asked why the Tax Inspectorate or government cannot have a say in the tax holiday policy or tax deductions, and said St. Maarten cannot have a tax system of profit-sharing or shifting of losses in a group of companies/holding companies like in the Netherlands (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) when the island’s investment and tax climate is totally different.

  “Once we regulate that everyone pays their fair share, the profit a company makes is theirs. All the Dutch want to do is destroy business with taxes,” he said. “I notice that we must allow the World Bank people and I’m sure a few of the justice people do not pay a cent to the St. Maarten taxes, yet they live here and work here.

  “Why isn’t it so, that anyone that does work here for more than 30 days is subject to local taxes and social premiums?”

  Another concern raised was the proposal to increase the pension age to 66. Buncamper said this is being done when there is no clear indication of the lifespan of the people of the country. He said if data on this is available, he wants to know the lifespan of men and women.

  He made clear that Parliament’s autonomy cannot and will not be removed by any entity, including the now outgoing Dutch government.

  The country packages were accepted by government as a condition to receive liquidity support and the budget has to be in line with the country package to receive positive advice from the Committee for Financial Supervision CFT.

  Buncamper asked the Prime Minister whether the 2021 draft budget reflects the country packages for this year; whether the programmes and projects are feasible and who is paying for these projects and programmes. He also enquired whether the additional civil servants needed to run these programmes will be hired, given that the country has “a serious budgetary deficit.”

  He also wanted to know whether the Dutch Council of State has given any advice on the Caribbean Body for Reform and Development COHO and, if so, when.

  “Is it true that the landfill project might be stopped because the government didn’t relocate the people from alongside the landfill thus far? Was there not a consultant paid lots of money for this and now when they cannot execute it St. Maarten has to do it? Why are we allowing this behaviour?

  “Are there any more projects other than the landfill that have been threatened to be stopped if certain things aren’t done? Do they need the money for a presently overspent budget on a project/programme? Is it true that the budget is going to be pre-approved by CFT based on the country package and it’s our task to rubber-stamp the budget?” he asked.

  “Can we be informed how this doesn’t directly infringe on Parliament’s autonomy? Who decides on what we accept in the country packages ultimately? If we do not do exactly what the Dutch government/CFT says regarding the country packages will the liquidity support stop?”

  Buncamper said he noticed that there is no real input to keep Winair and questioned why there was not a scenario to, for example, purchase two to three planes and lease them to Winair at a much better rate than is being paid currently. “Some of the funds that the airport needs to pay back to government (loan) can be used for such, in my humble opinion.”

  United Democrats (UD) MP Sarah Wescot-Williams asked how government is proceeding with getting to an implementation agenda no later than April 1. She wanted to know what purpose aligning with the governing programme and the national development vision serve in this regard. “Is not the format of the implementation agenda already set, like it has been for Aruba and Curaçao?”

  She also queried how it is that Jacobs could not appear in Parliament when requested, but “suddenly offered to make an urgent presentation” to Parliament. 

  She wanted to know whether CFT, in reviewing the draft budget 2021, had included items of the country package, and asked what the financial implications of the country package will be and what will trigger payments for country package items.

  “How will studies, etc., be paid for? Is it not safe to assume that these studies and research will be done for St. Maarten, without St. Maarten’s steering? How will the private sector be structurally involved with the measures resulting from the country package?” Wescot-Williams asked.

  National Alliance (NA) MP Angelique Romou said St. Maarten has to come to terms that it is accountable for the situation it faces. “Our instability in government and Parliament over the past 10 years and lack of significant progress over the years has led us to these discussions that we are having today,” she commented.

  “This is, for me, extremely unfortunate that this is how we are brought to the table to discuss reform especially in our education sector. Although I am very much in favour of reform – as I believe any reform that would secure improvements for the people of St. Maarten is a win for all – however, I find myself asking this question: at what cost? Should reform come at the expense of autonomy?

  “I do understand good governance is a Kingdom Affair; however, that should not negate the fact that our autonomy is laid out in the Charter of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.”

  She said there are certain innuendos in the packages that contradict St. Maarten’s basic right as an autonomous country. Her questions included what can be expected as a result of the tax reform outlined in the measures and what the introduction of the VAT will mean for residents and businesses.

  “What struck me is the phrase ‘in accordance with the Caribbean Netherlands Tax system.’ Is it a fair assumption that the taxes that our brothers and sisters in the BES islands [Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba – Ed.] are now encountering, are what we can expect as a result of tax reform outlined in this national package?

  “If yes, what was done to determine that this tax system will work for our island? What research was done by our Kingdom counterparts in the Netherlands? What are the facts, where are the case studies and how does this align with our particular situation in St Maarten?”

  She also asked who will assess the independent initiatives of the COHO and how it is possible that an entity established in consensus with the four countries of the Kingdom can initiate projects independent of the government of St. Maarten, amongst other questions.

  NA MP Ludmila Duncan said that because of the country’s vulnerability following Hurricane Irma and COVID-19, government has had to sign an agreement for liquidity support. Its backs were against the wall. She said the coalition has created a comprehensive governing programme that sets out and details the necessary reforms and initiatives to bring the same outcomes as detailed in the country packages.

  “So, if the Netherlands is concerned about the execution of this plan, then assist us with technical assistance – send 10 legal advisors. We already know what reforms need to be implemented,” she said.

  “I have always had an issue with the silence from government as it concerns our diaspora and connecting with them. Call our people back home. St. Maarteners are studying public administration now. We have policy advisors in the Netherlands and the US. Call them home. They can do the work needed.”

  Party for Progress (PFP) MP Raeyhon Peterson asked whether a list had been created that mentions all of the national ordinances that would need to be looked at in light of the country packages; what MPs have to look at, amend, or create; and if such a list does not exist, can it be created so MPs can also get the ball rolling from their side whilst awaiting the implementation plan which he looks forward to receiving.

  PFP MP Melissa Gumbs, who also asked about the VAT, suggested that research be conducted to determine the poverty line and determine how much funds someone would need to live in the country. She said many people were just surviving and indicating that a living wage should be known.

  NA MP William Marlin said that rather than helping St. Maarten en route to becoming a strong independent Caribbean nation, more attempts are being made by the Dutch government to bring St. Maarten back into the fold and draw the country into the colonial system where they rule and control. He also addressed the issue of the 12.5 per cent VAT and asked several questions.

  United People’s (UP) party MP Omar Ottley urged Jacobs to continue to fight for the country, but said she should know when to say, “Enough is enough.” He said that while he understands the position she is in, at any point when she finds that enough is enough, she should not hesitate to be transparent with the population and Parliament, because “it serves no purpose for us to gain the world and lose our soul.”

  A number of other questions were asked and statements made by other MPs during the meeting, which was adjourned Monday night after all MPs on the speakers list had posed their questions.

  Jacobs provided an update on the country packages to MPs during her opening remarks.