The Opposition’s official Reply to the latest Budget Statement calls for an increase in the cost of work permits to boost employment for Bermudians.

Speaking in the House on Friday (February 28), Shadow Minister of Finance, Patricia Gordon-Pamplin said a One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) government would also set up the framework for an education authority.

The OBA also called for funding for an independent inquiry into the care of children referred for treatment overseas by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).

“The cost of work permits could be significantly increased across the board and a tax-neutralising reduction benefit for payroll tax could be offered for employers,” said Ms Gordon-Pamplin.

“The higher cost of permits would encourage companies to hire and train Bermudians, and this can be reflected in opportunities for Bermudians abroad to consider returning home.

“This approach could also fulfil the aim of reducing payroll tax burden on employers while incentivising them to hire Bermudians; growing the economy; enhancing our talent pool; encouraging the efficient processing of permits; creating a separate revenue centre for government and creating a shift for companies to manage expat employees as a separate cost centre rather than their entire employee base, and could discourage employers from unfairly selecting foreign workers over qualified and or trainable Bermudians.”

Photo: Courtesy of DCI

The Shadow Minister also called for the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee to include the Premier and Ministers responsible for education, finance, health, social services, works and engineering.

“One of the committee’s immediate priorities would be to lay the foundation for the exploration and development of an educational authority, which will remove the politics from education and provide consistent professional and accountable leadership to our public education system.

“Teachers have for far too long been required to use their personal resources to fund basic supplies within their classrooms.

“To support and supplement the basic classroom requirements and supplies, this cabinet sub-committee would approve an annual $1,000 budget for each schoolteacher, to alleviate the practice of teachers being required to personally fund extras for their classes,” she added.

The committee would find ways to ease the cost demands for items like uniforms and “source a dedicated public transportation allocation of school buses”.

On the sugar tax, she said: “The imposition of the “bait and switch” sugar tax helped raise costs for consumers. In short, we are still crushed.

“This budget reveals a tacit admission that the sugar tax was nothing more than a cash grab from our community and has resulted in an across the board increase in the costs of food.

“We would recommend that the government set the level of acceptability of sugar content based on international health established norms, and tax items that exceed that level.

She also noted that the DCFS was recently “subjected to intense public examination”.

With unanswered questions still looming, she said: “We would recommend that there be sufficient funds to enable a thorough external inquiry into the operations, effectiveness, care and concern underlying the choices made on behalf of our children for overseas care.

“We are fully supportive of the government’s budget allocation commitment to look out for our vulnerable young people who have aged out of the DCFS system through the proposed residential and transitional living facilities,” said Ms Gordon-Pamplin.

On Bermuda’s ailing retail sector, she noted that “the monthly retail sales have contracted for 19 out of the last 21 months”.

“Excuses offered that the retail sector GDP isn’t that bad, or that retailers must reinvent themselves to compete with Amazon gives little comfort to the employees who wait with bated breath in their stores hoping for patrons, all the while having the underlying fear for the security of their jobs.

“It is also inexcusable that the release of numbers was repeatedly delayed, an attempt to hide from the ugly truth.”

While noting that most of the sector’s workers were Bermudian, she  stressed that “any negative fallout from stagnant or negative growth directly impacts Bermudian workers and their ability to feed their families”.

“Government has blamed local retailers’ results on a failure to innovate and employ technology to remain competitive against online shopping.

“The ‘lesson’ offered to retailers is pure hypocrisy as government has failed in leveraging technological solutions to deliver its own services more efficiently to the taxpayer.

“Spending targets have yet again been missed and the taxpayer is paying more money for less public services.”

Ms Gordon-Pamplin also called for the implementation of the recommendations of the Fiscal Responsibility Panel and the Future State report by Bermuda First regarding universal healthcare, immigration reform and long-term payroll tax planning.

But she said the new Budget Statement “barely mentions the public dissension or the appeals to share further information”.

“We in the Opposition agree that we must find viable solutions to reduce healthcare costs and protect the underinsured.

“We believe in a universal healthcare plan, not a unified, single payer healthcare system,” said Ms Gordon-Pamplin.

“The Opposition recommendation is that the government should work through the intended programme for a more equitable solution, listen to the stakeholders and recognise that those who provide healthcare services know better than politicians what is needed to ensure optimum patient care.

Premier David Burt

“It also does not serve Bermuda for the Premier and his ministers to misrepresent the advocacy proponents as being greedy and uncaring, or advancing the conspiracy theory that those advocates are driven by the insurance companies.”

On the 60:40 rule, the Shadow Minister welcomed the change.

“It does not appear to be a workable solution to require that the boards of directors of such blended companies be 60 percent Bermudian.

“It is possible for the majority foreign investor to appoint Bermudian directors as would be required by the proposed change.

“We question what investor would invest most of the capital of an entity and be satisfied with having a restriction on how many of his preferred directors could be appointed to the board.

“This approach does not make sound investment sense and could serve to create an impediment for this possible area of growth by requiring unrealistic conditions,” she added.

“We invite the government to rethink this restriction.”

The Shadow Minister concluded: “Crushed by the costs of housing and mortgages, challenged by food prices, and facing high electricity bills, they wonder if we really understand what is happening in Bermuda.

“These are the remarks made by the Premier. Two and a half years into the Burt administration, we have seen multiple levels of taxation imposed on our seniors, businesses and consumers generally.

“Our most vulnerable have been alienated by an agency that is mandated to care for them.”