The Cayman Islands government’s 2018 and 2019 budget proposals continue the “regressive” policies of the Progressives party and do little to assist the average income or poorer Caymanian worker, Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller said Wednesday.
Mr. Miller’s speech was the first chance for opposition members of the Legislative Assembly to respond to the Progressives-led government’s $1.97 billion, two-year spending plan for the entire public sector.
“[Government’s] policies … cater to the elite class of Caymanians, the foreign businesses, the foreign worker [and] will lead to the continued erosion of the middle class and the increased suffering and hopelessness of the poor Caymanians,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Miller said the national unity government’s pledges to make education a top priority rang hollow following a detailed examination of the budget, which he said placed more emphasis than ever on earning revenue from foreign labor and made a weak case for the development of cruise berthing in George Town.
By press time Wednesday, the opposition leader was still reviewing various areas of the budget as part of a debate and review process that is expected to take at least another month to complete.
Mr. Miller cited specific line items in the budget which he said revealed government’s intention to actually reduce funding for public education.
For instance, he said, spending on secondary school education services in 2018 was set at $23.5 million, which he said was a “2 percent reduction” from the previous year. The 2019 portion of the secondary schools funding was still less than what it had been in 2017, he said.
The primary schools budget had received a “minuscule increase” from year-to-year, Mr. Miller said.
The school maintenance budget, meanwhile, appeared to have been reduced by more than $1 million below the 2017 forecast spending, the opposition leader noted.
“All the schools need more maintenance, not less,” Mr. Miller said. “Contrast this with the massive, enormous, gigantic and walloping increase in this budget for 2018 on … prison custodial services.”
That number, $11.3 million for 2018, was more than double the amount spent on the same item in 2017, he said.
“It is more than a 100 percent increase for prisoners, most of whom were failed by the very education system we are continuing to underfund,” he said.
Mr. Miller said the opposition group has refused to support any development of the cruise port or ship berthing facilities in George Town while education is being denied the support it requires.
“It’s time to sink the dock and float education so that all children can benefit from the rising tide,” Mr. Miller quipped.
The opposition members also expressed some discontent that government had not answered various questions they asked about the port project on several occasions.
Mr. Miller said he received some anecdotal information about the port through other sources, including documents that had been left on his vehicle’s windscreen. He said he was informed the entire cruise project would cost $300 million “plus” and that government had agreed to provide “all fees related to cruise passengers” to the cruise industry for 50 years.
In return, the cruise industry would put $50 million to $100 million into the project, leaving some $200 million worth of funding in question.
“Who is providing the other funds or guarantee to other financiers to build the cruise berthing facility?” he asked.
Later in the day, Deputy Premier Moses Kirkconnell said Mr. Miller was “misleading the House” by continuing to state the proposed port project was valued at $300 million. Mr. Kirkconnell said there was no such figure in the budget.
Premier Alden McLaughlin said the current budget only contained about $3 million for design of the dock.
“We’ve made it plain, it is not going to be financed by government anyhow,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
Based on the opposition’s review of budget documents, it was estimated that the number of new jobs to be created would not keep up with the number of new work permits for foreign nationals being contemplated, Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Miller alleged that more than 600 currently employed local workers would have to lose their jobs if that number of non-Caymanian workers was brought in. This statement was met with groans and cries of incredulity by members of the government benches.
“Until the government of national unity is prepared to deal with a reduction in work permits and a corresponding reduction in revenue, Caymanians will continue to be unemployed,” Mr. Miller said.
The Cayman Islands government expects to collect more than $100 million per year in the next two years from immigration-related fees charged for work permits, permanent residence applications, visitor work visas, Caymanian status fees and other permits, according to budget documents reviewed by the Cayman Compass.
The collections are expected to make up approximately 14 to 15 percent of central government’s annual earnings in 2018 and 2019.