By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The newly-appointed House Opposition leader yesterday said she will now head the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), saying: “There’s so much to get our teeth into I don’t know where to start.”
Loretta Butler-Turner told Tribune Business she was “going to put myself on that [the PAC] to see if we can get some investigations going” into issues exposed by Tribune Business this week.
Among the topics the current Long Island MP says she plans to target are the ongoing woes at Bank of the Bahamas’, where 46 per cent of its loans (more than $234 million) are non-performing, and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) assertion that the 2015-2016 fiscal deficit will be double the Government’s $150 million projection.
“I think you’ve given me a lot of work to do,” Mrs Butler-Turner told Tribune Business of its reporting this week. “There’s so much to bite our teeth into, I don’t know where to begin.
“I’m going to head up the PAC, put myself on that, and see if we can get some investigations going into some of these things.”
When Tribune Business pointed out that she and the PAC were likely to run out of time, given that a general election is likely just five months away, Mrs Butler-Turner agreed: “We are, but at least someone’s got to start asking questions.”
The PAC, which is currently headed by St Ann’s representative Hubert Chipman, one of her fellow seven ‘rebel’ MPs, has been criticised for failing to properly hold the Christie administration to account, despite many instances of financial mismanagement and waste.
To-date, it has only published a report on the Urban Renewal Commission’s Small Homes Repair programme, with the ‘minority’ members from the Government side, Shane Gibson and Ryan Pinder, releasing their own document.
In response, Mr Chipman, who together with Richard Lightbourn and K P Turnquest forms the Opposition majority, said the Government had frequently failed to provide much of the information requested by the PAC, effectively blocking its investigations into how taxpayer monies are being used at birth.
The situation highlights the relative strength of the executive (Government) compared to the legislature (Parliament), plus the dearth of powers, time and resources available to the PAC in a House of Assembly where most PLP MPs are also in the Government.
Mrs Butler-Turner is likely to replace Mr Turnquest, who has remained in the ‘Dr Hubert Minnis camp’, and it remains to be seen whether her promise of a more reinvigorated approach will bear fruit.
The House Opposition leader, meanwhile, said she had been “fascinated” by the IMF’s report on its week-long mission and visit to the Bahamas, which ended on Tuesday this week.
“I noted in particular this whole thing about not being able to control spending,” Mrs Butler-Turner told Tribune Business.
“They’ve collected more than $1 billion in Value-Added Tax (VAT) revenues and everything is still out of control. We’ve got to get rid of these people [the Government]. We don’t know what they’re doing with our money. Why are their projections so wrong?”
Tribune Business revealed earlier this week how the IMF had found that the fiscal deficit for the year to end-June 2016 was twice what the Christie administration had projected, and urged it to make “more determined efforts to rationalise spending”.
The Fund, in a statement on its week-long visit to the Bahamas that ended yesterday, said reduced government expenditure was now “critical for rebuilding fiscal and external buffers”, which have been further eroded by Hurricane Matthew.
Preliminary data for the fiscal year ending in June 2016 suggests that the fiscal deficit declined to about 3.5 per cent of GDP, down from 4.4 per cent in the previous fiscal year,” the IMF team head, Jarkko Turunen, said.
While the year-over-year comparison sounded reassuring, and provides a modest bit of good news, the 3.5 per cent deficit projection is actually a 50 basis point (half a percentage point) increase on the forecast made in the IMF’s own Article IV report from July 2016.
The Fund had then projected that the Government’s deficit for the 2015-2016 fiscal year would be equivalent to 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), or around $240-$250 million.
This was still in excess of the $150 million, or 1.7 per cent of GDP, that Prime Minister Perry Christie had confidently touted in his 2016-2017 Budget address just one month before.
Now, the revised IMF estimate is more than double that Government projection in percentage terms, implying that the 2015-2016 fiscal deficit has actually come in at around $300 million.
While that is still an improvement on the $381 million worth of ‘red ink’ incurred during the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the latest projections further reinforce the IMF’s message that the Government’s fiscal consolidation projections are “too optimistic”.
Mrs Butler-Turner added yesterday: “It was very significant what the IMF had to say. It’s very significant that their visits are becoming more frequent.
“They’re [the Government] spending like drunken sailors. They have been very reckless from a fiscal perspective. When you hear what the IMF has to say, spending is out of control, the projections are over-rated and the deficits are continuing. We are on the precipice of a real disaster. It’s frightening.”
Mrs Butler-Turner suggested that the IMF’s visit, and worsening fiscal position, may have prompted the Government to rush out news of Baha Mar’s acquisition by Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE) prematurely.
“They say it is supposed to be open and people working by April, yet they haven’t completed the Heads of Agreement,” she added.