Ministers St. Maarten outline policies related to budget to MPs


~ Duncan aims to introduce fees for Justice services ~

PHILIPSBURG--The seven ministers have given Parliament an overview of their policies and plans for 2012 as these related to the draft 2012 budget that is before Members of Parliament (MPs) to approve.

The plenary session on the budget had a false start on Monday morning due to the lack of a quorum. That was speedily followed by the reconvening of the meeting in the afternoon by Deputy President of Parliament Leroy de Weever.

After some five hours of presentations, the meeting was adjourned until 10:00am today, Tuesday, when MPs will pose questions to the cabinet members on their policies, plans and how these fit within the budget. It is also expected that several MPs will table motions that will directly impact the budget in various ways, as the meeting progresses.

While a number of the policies outlined were repetitious based on past presentations by ministers, these somewhat fitted in with the opposition National Alliance (NA) request to have the cabinet give more substance to the budget.

Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transportation and Telecommunication Minister Franklin Meyers even asked Parliament to excuse him from making a presentation because it would be basically the same as the policy outline he gave to MPs in October 2011. De Weever said he had to continue with the presentation, as it was his "duty" to provide the information.

Meyers spoke about preparatory work to develop an investment package open to local and foreign investors as an economic booster. His ministry also is working on streamlining the business licence process and hopes to put a cap of six weeks on the process.

If no communication is received within that period, the licence will be considered as granted for straightforward businesses. For other, speciality businesses that would require the input of other departments, the processing time could be longer.

Meyers pointed out that as part of the revamping of the tax system, his ministry together with that of Finance was looking into reducing the profit tax to possibly between 15 and 18 per cent, compared to the some 34.5 per cent now levied.

He also outlined his vision to attract more high-end tourism business through branding of existing properties and encouraging the development of boutique hotels, as well as delving more into niche markets such as the honeymoon sector.

Meyers said the beach policy would be adjusted and pending Jet Ski licences for which two local youngsters had applied would be granted. He said it was not acceptable that there were moratoriums in areas where locals were involved while there was none for businesses such as jewellery stores, operated mostly by non-locals. He said it was time the people of St. Maarten were "part of the economic growth."

Finance Minister Hiro Shigemoto outlined the process used to develop the budget and the relevant laws that play a part in the compilation. As for policies, he also rehashed his vision of revising the tax system as a means of broadening the tax base, improving government's finance management to the level of best practices and upgrading the tax authority, among other projects.

As the last of the ministers to address Parliament, Shigemoto said it was good to have listened to his colleagues go through what was in the budget in terms of policies and plans. He added that based on the way MPs had spoken in the Central Committee of Parliament's handing of the budget, the public might have thought that it was "a horrible document."

Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams highlighted the need to upgrade the civil service through an education plan about the way government functions that would extend to the public later. Wescot-Williams also outlined the establishment of an expanded national archive, further development of the National Gazette, and strengthening of the National Security Service, among other projects and policies.

She was critical of MPs for questioning the policies of the ministers and by extension the cabinet as a whole when the Governing Programme had been presented to Parliament since September 2011. "No one discussed the government programme," she said.

Deputy Prime Minister/Infrastructure Minister Theo Heyliger based his presentation on the United People' (UP) party/Democratic Party (DP)'s governing programme titled a "Foundation of Hope" and zoomed in on the need to improve the organisation of his ministry to kindle the community's respect. He said the ministry had to contend with limited resources, human capacity and tools.

Pay for services

Justice Minister Roland Duncan pointed out again his intention to bring legislation to introduce a fee for residence permits. The ministry receives some 5,000 requests annually for renewal and new residence permits. At present, a processing fee is charged when a request for a new or renewed employment permit is logged.

Duncan also will seek to raise more money for his ministry by implementing fees for "Justice services" such as the new requests/renewals for gun permits and requests for police records and public gathering permits for events. No fee is levied for these services other than purchasing of a revenue stamp.

He also spoke about the need to acquire "The Box" in Cay Hill for use as a youth detention centre and criminal psychiatric facility, among other uses. It will also serve as the main kitchen for all the detention facilities. A proposal on "The Box" will be sent to Parliament soon for review.

He addressed the human resources shortage his ministry faces and efforts to correct this, as well as trying to access funding needed to carry out the recommendations in the Plans of Approach. He referred to the Immigration Department as "neglected" over the years and said he hopes to boost its capacity and workplace morale.

Expansion of the National Detectives unit and putting the framework in place to ensure the head has a replacement also are being looked at.

On substations and increasing police presence in the 10 districts, Duncan said he was in talks with various property owners to acquire land and spaces. He hopes to conclude talks with Port de Plaisance to use two old buildings on its property to house police officers temporarily, as construction of the substation to be built in that area is yet to be started.

Male teachers

Education, Culture, Youth and Sports Minister Rhoda Arrindell outlined the strides she had made in her portfolios, taking time to address comments made by some opposition MPs on the tweaking of the Culture Policy, efforts to host the 2013 Kingdom Games and adequate funding for youth organisations.

Arrindell spoke of the possibility of extending school hours, attracting more male teachers to the classrooms, making sports a mandatory part of the curricula and emphasising graduating students being able to converse comfortably in English, Dutch, Spanish and French.

While working on a sports policy, a Sports and Recreation Foundation and a Youth Development Foundation are in the works. An Interim Sports Technical Committee is in place. The "Get off the Block, Get on the Bus" programme will be rewritten to meet pressing goals.

Man in the mirror

Public Health, Social Development and Labour Minister Cornelius de Weever prefaced his presentation with a video clip to the sound of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror." The clip showed scenes not in St. Maarten of emaciated children, homelessness and poverty, among other social ills. It even had a brief clip of Adolf Hilter in his trademark military uniform complete with swastika.

De Weever said the clip was "to set the mood" and evoke the question whether a better St. Maarten was desired. He said his ministry was busy with a health information system to establish a baseline, to monitor policies and any outbreak.

He urged all residents to take control of their health and see physicians regularly. He also asked MPs to support medical policies. The development of a national disability fund and pension plan are being explored.

Giving insights into other policies, De Weever said the foreign work permit policy was under review, as well as the labour laws. Those laws are seen as key to "drastically reduce" youth unemployment.

False start

Monday's meeting was slated to start at 10:00am. However, after a 30-minute wait, only seven MPs were signed in for the start of the session, one signature short of a quorum. President of Parliament Gracita Arrindell and fellow MP Johan "Janchi" Leonard were not present, as they were travelling back from Aruba.

Although National Alliance (NA) MPs William Marlin, George Pantophlet, Louie Laveist and Hyacinth Richardson as well as independent MP Frans Richardson were present in the General Assembly Hall and in their seats, they had not signed in for the meeting.

Following a roll call, Deputy President of Parliament Leroy de Weever said the session had to be reconvened within four times 24 hours based on the Rules of Order. He immediately set the second calling of the meeting for 2:00pm. It was pushed later to 3:00pm as NA members indicated that they wanted to attend a funeral.

When the meeting was opened for the second time, there was the required number of signatures for a quorum.

The only other procedural issue to come up as the afternoon progressed was MP Laveist asking for a roll call just when Shigemoto had started with his presentation. There were about four MPs in the hall at that time. As preparations for the roll call were made, MPs in the hall gestured to their colleagues to return to their seats. Some MPs made it back to their seats just as the general secretary called their names. Ten MPs were noted as present, so the session continued.