Withdrawals for land purchases from the Environment Protection Fund will not be hampered by the non-commencement of two sections of the National Conservation Law related to the Fund.
That’s the assurance from Environment Minister Hon Wayne Panton as he responded to questions on Monday (15 August) about the impact of the provisions on the disbursement of $6 million allocated in the budget for the purchase lands for the purpose of conservation.
Mr Panton assured, during a media conference to announce the commencement of the NCL, that the disbursements would not be affected as the EPF operates within a separate framework.
“Section 46 and 47 of the (NCL) law has a few words and sentences in there (that) we are just looking to get some clarity from the Attorney General in relation to its impact in the original construct and the framework around the Environment Protection Fund. The framework is already there, the existing framework continues to operate. That is the framework that was utilized to approve the $6million as a part of the budget process in June,” Minister Panton explained.
He explained that any money that is to be spent by Government from the EPF must be included in the appropriation bill (the national budget) for the relevant financial period and the proposed $6m was included in this year’s appropriation bill.
The authorization for EPF withdrawals, Mr Panton said, remains in the existing regime which requires a specific resolution of the Finance Committee to be authorized and this was done.
However the minister did not have an easy time passing the resolution to get the authorization for the disbursements from the EPF as Independent MLAs Ezzard Miller, Arden McLean, Winston Connolly and Alva Suckoo voted against the $6 million appropriation which he identified for land purchases for conservation purposes in the 2016/2017 budget.
The MLAs contented that they could not vote for the appropriation in the absence of specific acreage earmarked for purchase.
Mr Panton, speaking in Finance Committee, assured that the National Conservation Council (NCC) did not have to spend all the money if the government could not secure lands and the sum, he added, would not be withdrawn from the fund.
Mr Suckoo, in a post on his Facebook page after the June vote, made it clear the Independents’ position was not against conservation.
“We did not vote “NO” to Conservation. I voted “NO” to approving expenditure of $6 million from the Environmental Protection Fund despite no land having been identified beforehand. Show me the land and explain how the purchase benefits the environment and I will vote for $12 Million,” he contended.
However the Environment Minister dismissed as “politics” MLAs’ decision to vote against Government’s $6 Million appropriation.
“Where is the potential for any abusive exercise of power by the NCC? Unfortunately their position is all about politics and not wishing to support the acquisition of land for conservation purposes. That was made clear by comments made and positions taken,” the minister countered, in a brief statement to The Cayman Reporter on the issue in June.
He clarified then that lands for purchase were not identified to him.
“Further even if it had been identified it would have been completely nonsensical and detrimental to any negotiations to publicly identify them. Who in their right mind would initiate a negotiation by declaring to a specific landowner that they have $6 million to spend?” the Minister argued.
Despite the split vote the appropriation passed.
Last month Premier Hon Alden McLaughlin, together with Minister Panton, denied that Government was engaged in the wholesale disposal of government land as he responded to concerns raised by callers on the For the Record talk show on Radio Cayman on Monday (25 July).
The Premier defended the government’s approach to land sales and land purchases assuring that the Progressives-led administration acts within the ambit of the law in both instances as it relates to the Governor (Vesting of Lands) Law and National Conservation Law.
He assured every sale is open, transparent and subject to inspection by members of the Legislative Assembly.
“Government is not engaged in any wholesale disposal of government land and everything that we have done is an open and transparent process and it winds up down at the Legislative Assembly,” the Premier contended.