KINGSTON, Jamaica - The Government Tuesday used its huge majority in the House of Representatives to pass the Bill giving it authority to withdraw $45.6 billion of National Housing Trust (NHT) funds over the next four years to fund the budget.
The National Housing Trust (Special Provisions) Act, 2013 was passed by a majority of 37-18, voting strictly along party lines with one abstention being Opposition MP Mike Henry.
The NHT Bill will give the Government the right to draw down funds from the Trust, at the will and determination of the minister of finance, until March 31, 2017.
It was specifically brought to Parliament to ensure that Government's draw down of $11.4 billion annually for the next four years is not blocked by court action.
The Bill was passed after a stormy debate, in which Government MPs sought to justify its passage to protect access to the funds in an effort to achieve a 7.5 per cent primary surplus target in 2013/14.
Minister of Finance and Planning, Dr Peter Phillips told the House that the government had to agree to the 7.5 per cent primary surplus in order to reach the staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month. He added that a draw down of the NHT funds was needed to avoid an additional $27.3 billion tax package to meet the target.
Dr Phillips said that the government brought the legislation to Parliament, not because it did not have the legal authority to access the funds, “but we are doing it out of an abundance of caution to avert any misconstrued challenges by persons, with or without contribution, who might want to destroy or delay the agreement with the IMF”.
Opposition spokesman on Finance, Audley Shaw, however said that there are always alternatives if the government wishes to pursue them. He suggested that the government, instead of drawing down on the NHT funds, focus on implementing tax and pension reform as well the transformation of the public sector.
“Pitchy-patchy tax packages and taking money from the NHT are not going to be our long term solution to putting the economy on a sustainable path of growth,” Shaw said.
Other speakers in the debate included Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Holness, Minister of Transport, Works and Housing, Dr Omar Davies and Leader of Opposition Business, Delroy Chuck.
The House of Representatives also passed The Law Reform (Fraudulent Transactions) Bill, or the Lottery Scam Bill, to combat the illicit lottery scam, by making specific provisions for dealing with offences relating to advanced fee fraud and other fraudulent transactions.