Governor presents Governing Program at Opening of 2021-2022 Parliamentary Year | SOUALIGA NEWSDAY

SINT MAARTEN (PHILIPSBURG) – His Excellency drs. Governor Eugene B. Holiday delivered the Government’s action program on the occasion of the opening of the 2021-2022 parliamentary year on Tuesday, September 14, 2021, in the House of Parliament.

The address of the Governor is as follows:

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Good morning and very special greetings to the people of Sint Maarten.

Each year, we gather in this special parliamentary assembly on the second Tuesday of September for the opening of the new parliamentary year.

Today we assemble for the opening of the 2021-2022 parliamentary year, Sint Maarten’s 12th parliamentary year. We do so during our fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the delta variant wave.

The past 19 months have been like none we have seen before. Since the start of the pandemic the virus has infected some 3,979 persons, hospitalized some 183 persons, and taken the lives of 57 persons, of which 29 since June of this year. It saddens me each time I learn of the passing of another person because of COVID.

These are not just statistics, they are our grandparents, our parents, our siblings, our relatives, our friends, our colleagues, and our neighbors.

I hereby extend my heartfelt condolences to the families who have lost loved ones. And I pray for the recovery of everyone who is suffering from COVID-19.

In the face of the exceptional challenges of this pandemic, I call on everyone to do their part, that is to wear masks, to practice social distancing and to get vaccinated, and thus protect each other and contribute to our recovery. And I am thankful for the courageous health care professionals, law enforcement officers, firefighters, other frontline employees, and volunteers, who are there every day doing their part for the protection of our wellbeing.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

My address today outlines government’s response to the crisis and its policy plans for the coming year.

 

Our economy was just starting to recover from the impact of hurricane Irma when the COVID-19 Pandemic struck. This has, in addition to the ensuing health crisis, presented major social, economic, and financial challenges for our people and country. In 2020, economic activity declined by 24%, resulting in a substantial rise in the number of unemployed persons. Leaving many businesses and families struggling to make ends meet and widening the deficit of government to NAf.160 million in 2020.

The COVID-19 Pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the world and here at home. This fourth wave has pushed hospital facilities and personnel to their limit as they treat the inflow of COVID-19 patients. And there is no indication how long the effects of the pandemic will last.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Getting control of the effects of the pandemic is therefore the number one priority of government.

Government’s activities as a result, have and continue to be dominated by efforts to mitigate the spread and to protect our people from COVID-19 infections. To manage the health crisis government has implemented a mix of COVID-19 measures. These include:

  1. Amending the public health ordinance to incorporate COVID-19 on the list of infectious diseases;
  2. Providing daily updates regarding developments in COVID-19 infections and transmission to increase awareness;
  3. Setting safety protocols regarding social distancing, wearing masks, hygiene, isolation and quarantine;
  4. Controlling of activities in areas with high risks for transmission by establishing reduced opening hours for businesses;
  5. Facilitating testing by increasing the testing capacity for Collective Prevention Services including the introduction of testing sites in districts;
  6. Providing support to secure additional capacity at the hospital; and
  7. Executing the ongoing COVID-19 immunization program through the drive to vaccinate 85% of our population.

Thanks to the hard work of public health officials, health care professionals and volunteers, some 23,493 of our resident’s, or 54.1% of eligible persons, have already been fully vaccinated since the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination program in March 2021.

As long as there are active cases however, it is critical that more people get vaccinated to achieve the 85% vaccination rate. We must not let our guard down; we have an individual and collective responsibility to keep each other safe. With each person who gets vaccinated, all of us become safer, bringing us one step closer to the end of the pandemic. And achieving the end of the pandemic is an essential precondition for economic recovery.

The COVID-19 prevention measures have been accompanied by programs to bridge social gaps and cushion the economy from further fall out, such as:

  • The emergency food program to address the socio-economic impact of the pandemic;
  • The extension of the emergency income and training program up to April 2021; and
  • The payroll and income support program, for employers, for self-employed persons, and for former employees.

Given the increase in the applications for financial aid there is a need for more programs in the year 2021-2022 to overcome and cope with the loss of income and to create economic opportunities for persons in need.

Government is continuing to assess the situation to ensure timely response in the ever changing COVID-19 environment. This calls for continuous cooperation with stakeholders at home and with partners in the Kingdom. Government is, in particular, grateful for the critical medical support which it continues to receive from the Netherlands, in terms of medical personnel, as well as testing and vaccine supplies. On an island level, government has been working on establishing protocols with its French counterparts in the North aimed at synchronizing measures across the island.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Looking ahead preliminary estimates indicate that the economy is expected to grow by 4% in 2021. That leaves a substantial amount of ground to cover to get back to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity. Government is therefore committed to executing its governing program aimed at stimulating sustainable economic development. The governing program calls for the implementation of a set of structural reforms directed at rebuilding a strong, unified, and multi-pillar country.

To support the pursuit of its strategic objectives and related policy priorities, government as a condition for liquidity support, is carrying out a country reform package and related implementation agenda agreed upon with the Dutch Government in December 2020. The reforms are related to, among others, financial management, taxes, the economy, the labor market, the environment, the social security system, and education. In addition, government continues to work with the World bank on the preparation and implementation of projects under the Reconstruction, Recovery and Resilience Program, which are financed by the Dutch funded Trust Fund.

To execute the implementation agenda, government has established a monitoring structure, consisting of a Monitoring Committee, a Secretaries General Platform, and a secretariat. The Monitoring Committee is responsible for keeping the Council of Ministers informed, and the SG Platform is responsible for the execution of the measures. The Dutch Government has on the other hand established a Temporary Work Organization to monitor and provide support for the execution of the implementation agenda based on updates from the secretariat of the SG platform. The Temporary Work Organization is to be replaced by the Caribbean Body for Reform and Development, COHO. The Draft Kingdom Consensus Law regulating the COHO has been approved in the Kingdom Council of Ministers. It will be forwarded to the four parliaments within the Kingdom for debate following advice from the Kingdom Council of State.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

In addition to the uncertainty of the pandemic government remains vigilant to the threat of hurricanes which could side-track its policy agenda. The establishment of a comprehensive disaster management plan has therefore been the focus in 2021. The key objectives of which are:

  1. First, to strengthen disaster risk management governance, including the operational aspects of the structure;
  2. Second, to mainstream disaster risk management into national development planning and in day-to-day advising and decision making; and
  3. Third, to develop and implement disaster risk financing instruments.

Important initiatives in this regard are:

  1. The training of the disaster management ESF coordinators in making disaster plans provided by VNG international;
  2. The acquisition of fire trucks and equipment to be better prepared for rescue operations during and after disasters and every day.
  3. The upgrade of the shelters within the community, equipped with generators and water tanks, with funding from the Trust Fund;
  4. The launch of the EU funded multi-functional shelter project and its ongoing development; and
  5. The continuation of the Caribbean Ca-tas-tro-phe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF), with funds from the Trust Fund up until 2024.

To improve its response to social needs and the impacts of disasters, government will continue to work on an upgrade of its Social Registry System in 2021-2022. This system allows for the mapping of the most vulnerable in our society, improves delivery and quality services, helps plan new projects and programs, and plays an important role in disaster risk preparedness, including dealing with crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Government will, in addition, continue to focus on making our labor market more flexible while at the same time ensuring socio-economic stability and security for our workers. The main objective moving forward is to build resilience, which will include:

  • fostering employability in the labor force in key sectors; and
  • the establishment of an unemployment insurance fund as a contingency instrument to cope with economic shocks.

Government is also putting measures in place to ensure a more robust and sustainable health care system. The health care reforms are intended to increase the capacity, quality, access, and affordability of health care for the entire population. Important aspects of these reforms are:

  • First, the ongoing construction of the new hospital, while also increasing the number of available specialties;
  • And second, the development and construction of a new mental health care facility by the Mental Health Foundation with approved funds from the World Bank.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Meanwhile government is seizing every opportunity to facilitate a safe increase in economic activity.

Given the importance of travel for our tourism-based economy government has and will continue to implement measures to facilitate travel and economic activity. To welcome tourist back to the island, Government together with the airport have in addition to the safety protocols, established COVID-19 travel screening guidelines through its Electronic Health Authorization System. It includes required negative COVID tests, to enable tourists to visit the island safely. Additionally, government has worked with the airport to setup a testing site at the airport to help guide safe travel.

By extension, Government has via the Netherlands, also signed on to the European Digital COVID Certificate program, also referred to as the European vaccination certificate. The Digital COVID Certificate, which took effect on September 1, 2021, is intended to allow holders of the certificate to travel more easily within the participating countries and to participate in social and economic activities. Government would like to see such a system introduced on a wider basis and is cognizant that the effectiveness of these measures depends heavily on the level of digitization in our country.

Government is therefore working on the implementation of its Digital Transformation Project. In March 2021, the Grant Agreement for the Digital Transformation Project under the Trust Fund was signed. With this commitment, Government is steadily embarking on the implementation phases of the project, which will have as ultimate outcomes enhancing the access, efficiency, and resilience of selected administrative public services for citizens and businesses. Important elements of the digitization initiatives are:

  1. The introduction of a Digital Identity for citizens to allow for accurate identification when conducting business with government;
  2. The introduction of a new financial management system, including online billing and payment services; and
  3. The automation of business processes for various departments, including the introduction of online applications, and digital receipt of products.

Government’s digital transformation project is part of government’s broader objective to further develop Sint Maarten’s digital economy as a key driver for economic growth.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Government will therefore continue to promote the upgrade of the digital infrastructure and foster the development of digital business and skills. The pandemic has underscored the value of digitization for economic activity. Building and developing our digital economy will offer new opportunities and function as an important facilitator of our tourism sector.

Government will therefore continue to work with telecom provider TelEm, to facilitate the realization of the island wide fiber-optic network. This investment is critical to better support the online platforms of our schools, of our health care sector, of our banks, and of our hospitality sector such as hotels, Airbnb, restaurants, and car rentals. Its implementation will provide the backbone to power our social and economic development in the digital age.

Government, in particular, sees digitization opportunities in the field of education, health care, elderly care, digital nomads and luxury tourism.

The need for improved digital infrastructure for education became even more evident during the pandemic. Government will therefore continue to invest in the upgrading of our education infrastructure and systems to meet the needs of the digital age. The results of the recently conducted education review as part of the implementation agenda will serve as an important input in that regard.

In light of the challenges faced as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, government has developed and established several policies to guide the safe delivery of education. This includes the Education Continuity Plan, which has been implemented to guide the delivery of quality education during the various phases of the Pandemic. Distance learning plays an important role in this regard. Government is as a result currently developing a Distance Learning Policy to further enhance this mode of education delivery.

This is part of government’s objective to secure equal opportunities and accessibility to quality education to support the continuous development of our human capital. Moreover, government has initiated several programs financed through the Trust Fund. The main projects include:

  1. First, the School Repairs project under which three schools have been completed, and the remainder will be repaired in two batches starting this September.
  2. And second, the USD.5 million Child Development and Protection Project. The aim of which is:
  • To nurture the wellbeing of children and ado-les-cents,
  • To strengthen the child protection system, and
  • To strengthen the resilience of schools to disasters.

The current situation has hampered the execution of sports, with a slow return to sports in 2021. Thus, focus has been on research, the development of concepts, and the repair of community courts, including sport facilities and gyms at schools.  In 2022 the intention is to develop policy areas relating to sport continuity, Sport Psychology, physical rehabilitation, and the development of elite athletes.  

For the coming years, government will implement the finalized and updated Integrated Youth Policy with a focus on youth mainstreaming. This is a two-fold strategy for pursuing youth development. It involves ensuring that youth and their interests are reflected in policy on an inter-ministerial level and thus ensuring that there are specific projects addressing youth. Specific projects include:

  • A Safety Net Policy to establish standards to safeguard and protect children by Youth Organizations; and
  • The ongoing updating of the minimum standards for Day Care and Early Stimulation Centres, as a collaborative effort in consultation with key stakeholders in the Dutch Kingdom as well as in the Caribbean Region.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

The recovery of the economy remains a top priority and government believes that Culture can be a vehicle in the development and diversification of the tourism product. The partnership with the Sint Maarten National Commission for UNESCO on the level of the four country Kingdom Platform is useful in this regard. The collaboration focuses on the implementation of the national agenda, specifically in the promotion and preservation of our heritage and culture.

Given the high dependence of our economy on the tourism industry, attracting tourists remains the corner stone of government’s economic recovery agenda for the coming year.

Despite the pandemic there have been positive signs during the past few months such as the expansion of schedules by airlines, and the (re)opening of various small and medium enterprises and large hotels within the hospitality sector. Given the major impact of the pandemic on the cruise industry government has worked closely with the port to restart cruise calls to the island. The successful introduction of homeporting in June and the return of transit cruise calls in the beginning of July have resulted in welcome business activity on the island.

Going forward, government intends to expand homeporting to increase cruise visitors and create spin off stayover tourists. An important condition to accommodate the recovery of the growth in the number of stayover visitors is the reconstruction of the airport terminal. Government has as a result taken steps to address corporate governance at the airport and work on the airport terminal is due to commence within short following the recent awarding of the work to the contractor.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

It is essential that these plans go hand in hand with an increase in private investment. Government therefore aims to complete a baseline study to improve the entrepreneurial and investment climate on St. Maarten. This is critical given that it is the private sector which functions as the catalyst for diversification and growth. To stimulate this government has introduced several policy initiatives, including:

  1. The digitalization of the business license processes to reduce processing time;
  2. The promotion of agri-tourism;
  3. The launch of the Enterprise Recovery Program with the issuance of over USD.1.7 million in small business loans; and
  4. The allocation of NAf.50,000 to Qredits to support additional administration costs for Small and Medium Enterprise loan requests.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

To deliver on its sustainable recovery agenda government has in addition defined the following objectives:

  1. First, implementation of a resilient, sustainable and responsible spatial development plan;
  2. Second, the adequate supply of housing and infrastructure;
  3. And third, the protection of our environment through the responsible use of natural resources and minimal dependence on fossil fuels.

Government is as a result preparing a consistent and sustainable policy for the spatial development of Sint Maarten. Proposals have been prepared for three main pillars: economic, social and environment. It is the intention that this process will be followed to establish a Spatial Development Strategy for the coming 10 years.

In the past year, a rapid assessment of Sint Maarten’s housing sector was undertaken in terms of development and reconstruction activities as well as preparedness for disasters, as part of the Trust Fund Recovery and Resilience program. Based on the recommendations from the assessment, Government, is in discussion with the Sint Maarten Housing and Development Foundation with regards to developing social and affordable housing and restructuring of the subsidy program.

Additionally, the first Nature Policy Plan Sint Maarten was recently approved and placed on public review. The objective of this policy is to ensure that the natural environment is managed in a sustainable way so that the ecosystems and ecosystem services can be preserved and, where possible, enhanced.

Moreover, government as part of its environmental reforms will continue to invest in the improvement of the management of waste in the coming year. Important programs in this regard are:

  1. First, the expansion of the sewage collection network in Dutch Quarter, in Philipsburg West and in Cole Bay;
  2. And second, the development and implementation of the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Strategy.

The plan is to establish an island-wide Sustainable Solid Waste Management System. It includes a Solid Waste Authority that will be responsible for all elements of the solid waste management system, such as the introduction of tariffs and the collection of fees in the coming two years. This project is being financed through the Trust Fund.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

To support its socio-economic recovery initiatives, it is critical to maintain law and order and thus the safety and security of our residents as well as our visitors. Investing in the further strengthening of law enforcement, is as such a fundamental element of government’s sustainable development agenda. Government is therefore dedicated to the further strengthening of the justice chain. In the coming period it, among others, intends:

  1. To establish the required Function Books for the employees of the justice ministry;
  2. To introduce a knowledge based and learning organization for the uniformed personnel; and
  3. To amend the LIOL to include the Court of Guardianship.

Government as part of its law enforcement agenda will also focus on:

  1. The start of the first phase of the construction of a new Multifunctional Detention facility in Point Blanche;
  2. The development of the project organization of the Crime Fund;
  3. The implementation of the Electronic Monitoring Program to support rehabilitation of detainees; and
  4. The development of Victim Support Services.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

The realization of government’s agenda require financing. The Corona Virus pandemic has presented government with major financial challenges in that regard. Government revenues are down 30% and the budget deficit will amount to a little under NAf.241 million for the year 2021 and to NAf.160 million in 2022. To cushion the impact of the decline in economic activities, the government pursued an expansionary fiscal policy, such as the payroll and income support program. Overall government has borrowed and received six tranches totaling NAf.253.9 million in liquidity support from the Dutch Government. This has led to an increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio to about 64.7%. And current projections show that government will only achieve a balanced budget in 2025. Given the projected shortfalls government will continue to work with the Netherlands to secure funding to help implement its structural reform agenda.

To address its budget deficits government’s financial strategy is aimed at building financial resiliency through sustainable public finances. The objective of which is to strengthen its position to better support the development of our people and country.

To limit the budget shortfalls for 2022 and beyond Government is undertaking several financial reforms to reduce expenses and increase revenues.

Government has started with an upgrade of its financial management processes. This includes the installation of an integrated financial software that will connect the financial processes of all ministries. That with the objective to improve government’s cost effectiveness and efficiency.

In addition, government plans to start with the optimizing and modernizing of the Tax Administration. Important initiatives in that regard include the new ICT software and the newly launched online portal accessible to the public. The new page will be further stream-lined in 2022 to improve access to services provided by government and facilitate the payment process for the public for these services.

And government will develop proposals to modernize the tax system and tap into new sources of revenues.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

In this new parliamentary year, government will therefore present you with various legislative initiatives towards the execution of its structural reform agenda. In line with its objectives, government will present Parliament with the 2022 budget for your handling in November of this year.  

As representatives of the people of Sint Maarten, government looks forward to your participation and your support toward the realization of these objectives. This aimed at continuing to create opportunities for all residents of Sint Maarten based on a sound social, economic, and financial foundation.

Mr. Chairman, Members of Parliament,

Thus, as you deliberate and decide on the issues that will come before you in the period ahead, I wish you much wisdom, strength, and God’s speed.

Thank you, God Bless you and May God Bless our Beloved Sint Maarten and protect its coast.

Source: Souliga Newsday https://www.soualiganewsday.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=39590:usm-welcomes-its-first-phd-researcher&Itemid=450

Source: Souliga Newsday https://www.soualiganewsday.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=39588:governor-presents-governing-program-at-opening-of-2021-2022-parliamentary-year&Itemid=450