Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
Faced with a lawsuit, as well as thunderous public outcry to thwart the Government's plans to deduct $45 billion from the National Housing Trust (NHT), Minister of Finance and the Publilc Service Dr Peter Phillips warned on Sunday that he would not take any chances and would bring the matter to Parliament.
Phillips brought to the House of Representatives, on behalf of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, a bill that, when passed by both Houses of Parliament, will effectively amend the National Housing Trust Act to withhold the $45 billion from the coffers of the NHT for budgetary purposes.
The bill, therefore, seeks to amend the National Housing Trust Act to enable it to provide financing support for fiscal consolidation for the period beginning with the financial year 2013-2014 and ending 2016-2017.
With the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) being entrusted portfolio responsibilities for the NHT, Simpson Miller is empowered to table the Bill at yesterday's sitting of the House.
The first reading
However, it was Phillips, the man burdened with the responsibility to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who served notice of "first reading" (formally presenting) the bill to the members of parliament.
"On behalf of the Honourable Prime Minister, I beg to give notice of first reading of the bill titled an Act To amend the National Housing Trust Act," asserted Phillips to a chorus of hesitant "no" from the Opposition benches.
A few minutes after Phillips took his seat, the prime minister, smiling broadly, entered the parliamentary chamber, but left soon after.
Meeting fiscal targets
The bill's memorandum of objects and reasons sought to place the Government's plans into perspective. "Arising from current international negotiations, the Government will be obliged to meet certain fiscal targets, including raising primary surplus to 7.5 per cent annually between the financial years 2013-2014 to 2016-2017."
The document further noted that "it is recognised that the NHT has, since its inception in 1976, operated profitably while delivering on its mandate of providing affordable housing solutions."
The OPM argued through the bill that the NHT is therefore in a position to facilitate the Government in achieving these fiscal targets by making a contribution of $11.4 billion annually for the 2013-2016 period.
"Importantly, this contribution will enable the Government to undertake necessary expenditure to bolster social and physical infrastructure, particularly in areas where construction is being undertaken by the NHT," stated the memorandum of objects and reasons.
Outside of these provisions, the bill also gives the finance minister discretionary powers to dip into the funds whenever he deems necessary. "It is further provided that the financing may be by way of distribution, grant or otherwise as the Minister responsible for finance may determine," the bill stated.
The introduction of the bill yesterday, paves the way for the debate where it is expected to be passed by the superior number on the Government benches in the House before it is dispatched to the Senate and sent to the governor general to affix his signature.