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Parliament adopts ‘skeleton budget’

PHILIPSBURG--Parliament passed the 2015 budget with an 11-4 vote on Thursday night with just two days to spare before the deadline set by the Committee for Financial Supervision CFT.

The budget had to be established in December 2014. Government asked CFT for more time and was given the deadline of January 31.

Voting for the budget were the 10 Members of Parliament supporting the coalition and former coalition member MP Sarah Wescot-Williams (Democratic Party (DP)). The four National Alliance (NA) Members of Parliament voted against the budget.

Wescot-Williams said her support came from her "having sat in another chair," meaning she had been prime minister when the budget mostly was compiled, and despite having "serious reservations." Voting for the budget was also a way of holding the ministers accountable for its proper execution.

Referred to as a "skeleton budget" by Finance Minister Martin Hassink, the balanced budget stands at NAf. 445 million, some NAf. 19 million off the amount projected by CFT. The budget now will go to Governor Eugene Holiday for his signature.

The growth of the budget by three per cent from NAf. 430 million last year can be credited to the country's economic growth, execution of a tax project/clearing up tax administration backlog, and "swift execution" of tax administration reorganisation.

One budget-neutral amendment was made to the budget by Parliament before it was adopted formally. The amendment cut the allocation for New Works (infrastructure) from NAf. 33,950,000 to NAf. 25,650,000 and moved the subtracted NAf. 8.3 million to Domain Affairs for the completion of the purchase of the Vorst land in Cay Hill.

Nine MPs supporting the coalition voted for the amendment while the four NA parliamentarians and Wescot-Williams voted against it due to objections to the high cost for the land. Coalition partner independent MP Leona Marlin-Romeo left the General Assembly Hall during the voting, so was not present when called to vote on the amendment.

The CFT now will review the budget and give its comments on whether it considers it indeed balanced. If the advice is negative, the Gumbs Cabinet will have to amend the budget to fit into the required parameters or face an instruction from the Kingdom Council of Ministers to get its financial house in order.

Subsidies motions

Two motions with similar content, but some varied wording were tabled in Parliament in the Plenary Session on Thursday. Both motions called for the reallocation of NAf. 1,167,560 from the Educational Behaviour Modification Programme to social, community and youth programmes and foundations.

The fundamental difference between the two motions was that the one from MP Silveria Jacobs (NA) listed specific foundations to which the reallocated money should go and the one presented by MP Theo Heyliger (United People's (UP) party) highlighted broad sectors.

After some high emotion about how the two motions came to mirror each other in their wording, the Jacobs motion received only six of the 15 votes, two short of the majority needed to pass it.

The Heyliger motion passed with 13 votes. It received support from Jacobs, who said the intent of the motion was the same as hers and the groups that needed to benefit would gain in the long run. MPs Johan Leonard (UP) and Christophe Emmanuel voted against the motion.

Reduced fuel clause

Jacobs presented a second motion calling for government as shareholder's representative "to instruct" utilities company GEBE management to take the steps to reduce the fuel clause on electricity bills immediately for all customers of the country. The motion was passed by Parliament unanimously via individual voting.

Suspended

Parliament suspended the voting on a motion from independent MP Cornelius de Weever to grant "provisional approval" for the start of medical coverage for the elderly, sole proprietors, vendors, bus and taxi drivers and their families.

The suspension came after six MPs had voted on the motion. Wescot-Williams pointed out the stumbling block when it was her turn to vote on the motion to grant provisional approval specifically for the implementation of Article V of the draft National Ordinance on the saving and management of social security and care.

Based on her queries it was ascertained that the ordinance had not even been handled by the Council of Ministers. This meant Parliament was handling a motion referring to what was technically a non-existent piece of draft legislation. De Weever was aware of the existence of the draft ordinance, as he worked on it in his former post as health minister.

Princess Heights 1st to Green Key Eco-label

DAWN BEACH--Princess Heights Luxury Boutique Condo Hotel has become the first and only property on the island to be awarded the prestigious Green Key Eco-label certification, currently the largest global eco-label for accommodations, recognised and supported by the World Tourism Organization and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The award which serves to validate environmental responsibility, adds to the property's titles of St. Maarten's leading hotel 2013 and 2014 by World Travel Awards and the Certificate of Excellence from 2011 to 2014 by TripAdvisor.

The property will celebrate its accomplishment along with Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC) and the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA) on the evening of February 2.

Princess Heights became certified through EPIC, the programme's National Operator. The Green Key programme is owned and run by the non-government, non-profit organisation Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). Epic became a FEE associate member in 2008.

The Foundation decided to start providing another eco-label geared towards leisure establishments after the success of Blue Flag, another FEE programme. The programme is locally operated through the sponsorship and support of the SHTA.

Green Key Programme is described as resting on 5 pillars: Education of staff, clients and owners towards increased sustainable development and environmental awareness in leisure establishments; Environmental preservation by the reduction of the environmental impact of each establishment in the world scene; Economical management by the reduction of consumption meaning a reduction of cost; Marketing strategy by the promotion of the Green Key label and the establishments using the Green Key icon; Strengthening of the tourism and leisure branch by taking responsibility broader than then their individual establishments.

Establishments are certified after fulfilling a host of requirements and are expected to adhere to more guidelines as time goes on. The eco-label has been awarded to more than 2,300 hotels and other sites in 46 countries.

Gov’t instructed to raise fee on money transfers

PHILIPSBURG--Increase or create an international transfer fee to be levied on money transfer services such as MoneyGram and Western Union was an instruction from Parliament to Finance Minister Martin Hassink. The motion was adopted by Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Plenary Session of Parliament dealing with the 2015 budget on Thursday evening.

Thirteen MPs voted for the motion.

MP Sarah Wescot-Williams (Democratic Party) voted against the motion, saying she could not support the piecemeal approach to changing the tax system. She preferred a proper reform.

MP William Marlin (National Alliance) was not present in the General Assembly Hall when he was called on to vote.

The motion, tabled in Parliament by United People's (UP) party MP Franklin Meyers, also called for government to start the process to move from direct taxes (e.g. turnover tax of five per cent) to indirect taxes such as a value added tax (VAT) of three per cent on goods to broaden the tax base.

A study on the possibility of lowering the income tax based on the implementation of the VAT was also called for in the adopted motion.

Minister of General Affairs Marcel Gumbs also was instructed via the motion to start the process to fully automate and integrate the information systems of all ministries to prevent tax evasion, illegal employment and for government's information to be complete and accurate. The unlinked automated government systems have "created low tax compliance."

The increase in international money transfer fee and introduction of the VAT aim to boost government's revenues and stimulate the economy, according to the motion.

The turnover tax has "not been yielding sufficient revenue" for government. The tax has proven "difficult to control."

Armed man in Dutch NOS building, demands airtime

HILVERSUM--A man wielding a pistol forced his way into the studios of Dutch national broadcaster NOS on Thursday demanding to be allowed to go on air, but was quickly arrested, television footage showed.

The man wearing a black suit and tie, later identified as student T.Z. (19), entered the studio after threatening a guard with a pistol, witnesses said.

An NOS radio reporter told International News Agency Reuters that no one had been hurt. NOS television stopped broadcasting because the studios had been evacuated. A number of staff had also managed to flee the building.

A police spokeswoman confirmed a man had entered the studios shortly before 8:00pm local time, the start of the daily news television broadcast followed widely by Dutch viewers. The spokeswoman could provide no details, but it was reported later that the man was not known to the police, the gun was a fake and the man was acting alone.

NOS broadcast displayed a message on its main news channel that read: "In connection with circumstances, no broadcast is available at this time." The building was still closed to staff at 10:00pm local time, when police officers were busy searching the building. A number of helicopters were also circling above the building at that time, the NOS said.

One eyewitness said the man had a pistol with a silencer attached and had threatened a security guard who accompanied him to the editorial department.

The man had a list of demands and wanted 10 minutes of airtime, NOS said. On making his demand, the security guard was said to have taken him to an empty room.

When the channel came on air again, it broadcast video of the gunman wandering about a studio. The man was seen with a black pistol behind his back, pacing in front of the camera and talking to an NOS employee. "There are major world affairs which we want to take public," he is heard to say. "We have been hired in by the security services. There we have heard things which call society into question."

At a certain point the man noticed the police who shouted at him to drop his weapon.

"Drop it! Drop it! And get on your knees!" the police shouted.

The man complied almost immediately. He then lay on the ground, as instructed, and was handcuffed. RTL news showed pictures of the letter the intruder had with him. In it he claimed 98 hackers were poised to launch a cyber attack and that eight bombs containing radioactive material had been placed around the country.

According to NOS director Jan de Jong, the gunman had wanted to go to the main evening news studio but instead a guard took him to the studio where daytime bulletins are broadcast. No shots were fired, according to the broadcaster.

Gov’t paid NAf. 1.31 million mobile phone bill to TelEm

page1a211~ Budget debate continues today ~

PHILIPSBURG--Government spent NAf. 1,131,844.78 last year in mobile telephone bills for civil servants. That amount covers 206 mobile phones from St. Maarten Telephone Group of Companies TelEm allotted to civil servants in "key positions," including emergency posts at the Fire and Ambulance Departments, police, health inspectors and policy advisors.

The Ministry of General Affairs has 50 government-allocated mobile phones; Ministry of Justice 25 mobile phones; Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports 17; Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication 35 mobile phones; Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure 42 mobile phones; Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labour 26 mobile phones; and Ministry of Finance 9 mobile phones.

Prime Minister/General Affair Minister Marcel Gumbs told Parliament Wednesday that government intends to establish a new policy on the issuance and regulation of mobile phones for civil servants to curb the high bill.

Independent MP Leona Marlin-Romeo had called on government in the Plenary Session of Parliament on the draft 2015 budget on Tuesday to seek more ways to cut back on waste and bad spending in the administration. She specifically asked how much government could save on mobile phones for civil servants who are not department heads.

Looking at the total amount paid in phone bills, it can be said the government pays some NAf. 5,494 per mobile phone annually. This comes to some NAf. 457.86 per phone per month.

Aside from the mobile phone bill, government owes TelEm some NAf. 15 million for "services rendered" based on figures provided to Gumbs in a shareholder's meeting with the company.

Government has claimed some NAf. 950,000 from TelEm's profits of NAf. 1.9 million.

The plenary session on the draft 2015 budget was suspended until 12:00pm today, Thursday. MPs started their day on Wednesday at 2:00pm and continued until close to 1:30am Thursday. When the meeting resumes today MPs will continue to pose questions to ministers. Following their answers, the budget will be put to a vote.

Government needs to establish the budget by January 31 to meet the deadline set by the Committee for Financial Supervision CFT or face an instruction from the Kingdom Council of Ministers to get its financial house in order.

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