Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has defended his decision not to offer cash handouts to the public, but his explanations have failed to convince many lawmakers who are now stepping up pressure on the finance chief to rethink his budget proposals.
Chan has been criticized for not heeding calls from the grassroots for a cash giveaway despite a record-high budget surplus, and choosing instead to plow back some of the money to society through indirect means.
In a radio interview on Thursday, the financial secretary called on people to regard the budget proposals as a whole, stressing that he did not ignore the grassroots’ needs.
The critical element is to balance social and other interests, Chan said.
He admitted that the proposed measures in the budget are more selective. However, he pointed out that the approach is consistent with how the budget had been planned in the past, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
During the radio program, listeners called in and complained that the budget plan had lost its focus.
The relief measures and sweeteners that Chan had laid out in his budget speech won’t help those really in need, the callers said, citing issues such as absence of a rent waiver for residents of public rental housing or other subsidies.
In response, Chan said he is not in favor of energy tariff subsidies, given the need to promote conservation efforts in line with environmental goals.
But he revealed that a study is underway on the feasibility of allowing rent payments to be taken into account for tax deduction purposes.
However, even if the government decides to offer such relief, it won’t materialize this year as there are many issues to deal with, such as adjustments of the Inland Revenue Department’s computer systems, the finance chief said.
After leaving the radio station, Chan attended a Finance Committee meeting at the Legislative Council, where he received harsh criticism from members of the opposition as well as the pro-establishment camps for not offering sufficient benefits for the public in the budget.
Starry Lee Wai-king, who chairs the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the largest pro-establishment political party in the city, said a massive surplus means the government has the capacity to do more for people.
Investing in the future and sharing financial gains with the public are not mutually exclusive, she said.
Telling Chan that the people who had been supporting him in the past feel hugely disappointed now, DAB lawmaker Leung Che-cheung urged the finance chief to consider revising the budget in an appropriate manner before the second reading of the Appropriation Bill 2018.
Ann Chiang Lai-wan, another lawmaker from the party, said a meeting is being planned for this Saturday to enable citizens to voice their grievances about the budget.
The meeting would see people who have been left out from the budget air their opinions, she said, adding that she may also request government officials to show up at the venue so that they would realize the depth of people’s problems.
Calling the budget plan unjust, Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun warned Chan that the government, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in particular, can expect a decline in their approval ratings.
Asked by pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick if the government may only change its mind on cash handouts if lawmakers join forces to vote down the appropriation bill, Chan did not give a straight answer.
But he said he maintains the view that he doubts if putting cash in everyone’s pocket is the fairest way to give back to the citizens.
Chan stressed that the budget proposals were decided after comprehensive deliberations and taking into account various factors.
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