KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, March 14, IWN — The Government’s provision to give departure tax monies directly to the International Airport Development Company (IADC) circumvents the Constitution, three opposition lawmakers have told Parliament.
St. Clair Leacock, MP for Central Kingstown, argued that the provision was removing state money from the oversight of Parliament and other government agencies.
MP for the Northern Grenadines, Dr. Godwin Friday, and Sen. Linton Lewis, also presented similar arguments before the legislation was passed, without amendment, on Monday.
In resenting the Bill, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves told Parliament that the Airport Service Charge (Amendment) Bill, 2013, was a “straightforward” piece of legislation”.
The departure tax earning was being transferred to the IADC to help finance the final stage of the construction of the US$280 million airport being built at Argyle.
“It is to facilitate us in having the transfer of money. It is not for the IADC to spend … the $5 million on an on-going basis,” said Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance.
“I am using it to assist with the financing of the Argyle International Airport,” he told lawmakers.
“This is what this is about: simple, straightforward. I don’t think that anybody would say that this is not a good policy to have this most important policy done,” he further said.
But, the Bill ended up as a debate on the constitutionality of its proposal.
Leacock said that while the policy is a good one, the process is flawed.
“… and we probably should reflect on it today and to that correction,” he told legislators.
He said the government was trying to circumvent the constitutional provision, enshrined in Section 68.
The general principles, Leacock said, is that monies collect should go to the Consolidated Fund unless there some other fund established for a specific purpose.
“I have no evidence, I have heard none this evening, that we have established a fund for a specific purpose,” Leacock said.
“… the Constitution has it that way for very good reasons, including the fact that when you operating through the Consolidated Fund, you are also subjected to oversight responsibilities, not just by the Parliament, but by the other departments, which is a provision also under the Constitution.”
Leacock proposed that the money go to the Consolidated Fund and then be granted to the IADC as a subvention, thereby “confirming to the constitutional requirement”.
He argued that the government can use the same “circumventing principles” to give drivers license funds to the road maintenance agency or yachting licence fees to Tourism Authority
“We can start going that way — everyman for himself. Because that is what is happening in the IADC case,” he said.
“There are implications for us for putting these funds into the IADC and we have to look for a different architecture than the one we have chosen here,” he said.
H suggested that the departure tax continue to go to the Consolidated Funds then have Parliament approve a subvention.
Leacock further said that while the IADC has existed for almost seven years he has not seen a balance sheet for the state-owned company.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lewis argued that the Bill did not conform to the requirement of Section 69.1 of the Constitution.
“There is no law enacted by Parliament. We are trying to enact a law now.”
“So, Mr. Speaker, we are not consistent with Section 68 of the Constitution. … we are not sitting easily with Section 69 of the Constitution. That being the case, Mr. Speaker, under section 101 of our Constitution, any law that is not consistent with our Constitution is void. And therefore, even if we pass this, we have a problem. It doesn’t sit easily with section 101, Section 69 and Section 68,” Lewis further said.
But Gonsalves objected to Lewis’ argument.
“It is entirely unacceptable for the honourable member to be making a declaration that the provision before this Parliament is, as a consequence of his opinion, void. … He can’t misinform the public and misinform the House that the law is void,” the Prime Minister said.
Meanwhile, Friday questioned the Government’s “sudden change of heart” in changing how the funds are collected and passed on to IADC
He also asked who would keep track of funds and the intervals at which the money will be paid to the IADC. Friday said that the amendment makes him “uncomfortable”.
“I see this as the think edge of the wedge. Once you have one example, if it works well, … who next on the list? Who is going to ask for that same kind of arrangement? Which other government institution or government owned company?”
He said that increasingly the oversight functions of Parliament is being “whittled” away by “these new technical arrangements”.
But before the Bill went to a vote, Gonsalves said he was satisfied that “the government was well advised that this law is within the four walls of the Constitution”.
He said what the Bill was attempted was doing in other jurisdictions with similar constitutions.
He said it is open to those who oppose the bill to challenge its constitutionality in court.
“I am not going to take the advice on the law from those who have an agenda,” Gonsalves said.