…despite US$18M signing bonus exclusion……PPP to file legal challengeThe National Assembly late Friday afternoon approved the $267.1billion budget despite concerns from the Opposition Peoples Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) about the exclusion of the US$18 million signing bonus from the estimates.The Opposition Leader has since indicated that the Opposition would be moving to the Courts to have the Estimates amended to reflect the signing bonus.Budget 2018 was presented to the National Assembly on November 27 with theMembers of Parliment during the budget debates in the National Assemblytheme “The Journey to the Good Life Continues.” Finance Minister Winston Jordan, in his budget presentation, said the $267.1 billion budget seeks to introduce several measures to support Government’s green agenda and improve various key economic sectors.As Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo on Friday sought to suspend the Standing Orders of the National Assembly to deal with Appropriations Bill No 15 of 2017, Opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira registered her party’s concerns with the exclusion of the US$18 million signing bonus paid by ExxonMobil in 2016.“We believe that there is time for us to amend and correct the Estimates,” she said.However, Finance Minister Winston Jordan moved a motion to have the Bill read, and it was done, followed by the passage of the 2018 Estimates.Legal challengeEarlier in the day, the PPP/C submitted a motion to have the final consideration by the Committee of Supply suspended to deal with the motion calling for the Finance Minister to amend the Estimates to reflect the signing bonus, but House Speaker Dr Barton Scotland disallowed the motion.Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, at an earlier press conference, said the next move would be to engage the Courts to have the Government comply with the financial rules and regulations.Signing bonusThe ExxonMobil US$18 million signing bonus was paid to the Government, but Government officials had not publicized its receipt until Chartered Accountant Christopher Ram raised the matter a few months ago.Last Friday, Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman was forced to reveal that the bonus had indeed been received. He noted that the money was paid to cover the legal fees in the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy. It took a leaked letter published in the Guyana Times to force Government to admit receipt of the signing bonus. A missive dated September 20, 2016 and addressed to the Governor of the Bank of Guyana has this subject: “Signing bonus granted by ExxonMobil – Request to open bank account”. It shows that Finance Secretary at the Finance Ministry, Hector Butts, had requested that a foreign currency account be opened at the Bank in order to receive a deposit in the form of a “signing bonus” to be given by ExxonMobil.The letter stated, “This account should not be treated as part of the Bank’s reserves. Instead, the proceeds should be held in the currency of the deposit, that is United States dollars, and invested in secured interest-bearing securities.”Since that revelation, several transparency watchdogs have called on Government to transfer the money to the Consolidated Fund, noting that the Constitution and several financial regulations had been breached.2018 BudgetThe 2018 Budget would see the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on private education, which will take effect from January 1, 2018.It would also see tributors’ tax on gold miners being slashed from 20 per cent to 10 per cent, but miners would still be required to file annual tax returns. Jordan said this decision was made following representation by the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA), whose representatives had also met with the Opposition to raise their concerns.Additionally, the Government announced plans to conduct a countrywide valuation exercise to bring all property values up to date. This could mean that rates and taxes may be increased.Budget 2018 contained very few benefits, one being the increase of old age pension from $19,000 to $19,500, representing an almost 49 per cent rise in old age pension in just two and a half years.Pensioners are also relieved from the payment of departure tax, driver’s licence and passport. Public assistance will be increased to $8,000, which represents an approximately 36 per cent growth over the period of two and a half years.Teachers who work in interior locations will also benefit from the new measures to be implemented from Budget 2018, and this includes an 80 percent increase in remote area incentives. The remote area incentive would be increased from $5,000 to $7,000 and from $9,000 to $12,000.Meanwhile, companies and individuals would be granted an amnesty to file outstanding tax returns in 2018.In the 2018 Budget, the Ministry of the Presidency would receive $9.4 billion; Finance Ministry would receive $28.2 billion; Foreign Affairs Ministry $5.5 billion; Indigenous Peoples Affairs Ministry $2.2 billion; Agriculture Ministry $16.8 billion; Business Ministry $2.1 billion; Natural Resources Ministry $1.1 billion; Public Telecommunications Ministry $4.6 billion; Public Infrastructure Ministry $32.06 billion; Education Ministry $19.9 billion; Communities Ministry $6.5 billion; Public Health $23.4 billion; Social Protection $16.9 billion; Public Security $18.7 billion; and Legal Affairs $1.06 billion.