Cayman Islands Finance Minister Roy McTaggart on Monday rejected opposition lawmakers’ claims that a $135 million, two-year projected budget surplus was a “duppy” (ghost) and that his government’s budget did little to help the ordinary Caymanian.

Mr. McTaggart’s comments came just before the 2018/19 budget plan was approved by 12 votes of the 19-member Legislative Assembly Monday evening. Five opposition members abstained from voting on the proposal and one member of the government bench, West Bay MLA Bernie Bush, was absent.

The lone opposition member to vote for the plan was Savannah MLA Anthony Eden. Speaker of the House McKeeva Bush, the 19th elected member, does not get to vote in the ordinary course of legislative proceedings.

The assembly members still must review the 2018 and 2019 spending plans line by line as part of finance committee meetings on the budget which were set to begin Tuesday afternoon. The budget will not receive final approval until that review is completed and a third vote on it is taken.

Premier Alden McLaughlin said Monday that he expected rigorous questioning during the finance committee review from opposition members. However, Mr. McLaughlin said he could not quite work out how the opposition concluded the spending plan did “nothing” for Caymanians.

“I don’t know how [Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller] could have missed all of the things the government has done or is proposing to do to improve the lot of Caymanians and make the Cayman Islands a better place in which to live and work,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. McTaggart said monthly financial assistance for retired Caymanian seamen and veterans would increase from $550 to $750 by Jan. 1, 2019. Meanwhile, civil service pensioners who receive that amount per month or less would see their monthly payments increased to the same amount of $750 per month by Jan. 1, 2019.

The finance minister said this move would improve the lives of more than 2,000 Caymanians and could not fairly be “described as inconsequential.”

“These budgets will benefit Caymanians, as these two examples make clear,” Mr. McTaggart said.

The government also disputed claims by Mr. Miller that its operating surplus (meaning revenues taken in are greater than what is spent) was made up. The opposition leader said the surplus amount does not include what government plans to spend to pay off debt principal amounts and what it will spend for capital (construction) projects. If those figures are added in, Mr. Miller said, the surplus becomes a sizable deficit.

Mr. McTaggart, a former managing partner at KPMG, said Mr. Miller was “mixing up” capital expenses (one-off spending) with recurring operating expenses.

“[The opposition’s statements] are a flawed argument,” he said. “It is certainly not a deficit.”

Education spending

Mr. Miller also took government to task for reducing spending for schools in some areas and alleging the Progressives-led coalition was merely paying lip service to improving Cayman’s public education system.

Premier McLaughlin said the budget for education has seen an overall increase from 2017 to what’s planned for 2018 and that public education makes up 17 percent of government’s total spend for the year.

“There is nothing new in [the opposition’s] accusations,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

The premier pointed out that if there is an education underfunding problem, the Education Ministry’s budget for the last two years has not shown it.

He said the 2015/16 budget plan ended with $1.7 million unspent by the ministry and the 2016/17 budget did not spend $1.8 million allocated to it during a 12-month period.

“The government is at a loss to understand complaints about resources being provided,” the premier said. “There may be a problem, but it does not lie at the feet of the former minister, the current minister or the elected government.”

Mr. McLaughlin described Mr. Miller’s education position as “excellent opposition tactics” but noted those tactics “would not go unchallenged.”

In comparing the prisons budget to the education budget, Mr. McTaggart said the opposition had erred. He said, while prisons funding increased between 2017 and 2018, it had not “doubled” as opposition members claimed.

Rather, he said the increase in funding went from $13.7 million annually in 2017 to $15.7 million in the 2018 budget and $15.9 million in the 2019 budget – about a 15 percent overall increase.