Government faces new shortfall in spending

GOVERNMENT figures released last week revealed an $8 billion shortfall in estimated spending for the coming fiscal year.

Faced with embarrassing surpluses, the Financial Secretary Mr Hamish Macleod has revised estimates of expenditure on public works projects for 1993-94 financial year from $39 billion to $31 billion.

The new figures show that government general reserves will balloon out even more and, despite airport spending, more than $100 billion could be handed over to the new administration in 1997, according to Ernst and Young tax principal Mr Marshall Byres.

The revised figures have been overlooked in newspaper reports to date but they are an admission that work on public works projects has been seriously stalled due to delays in the Port and Airport Development Strategy.

According to last week's figures, the Government under-spent massively from the Capital Works Account for the 1992-93 financial year. Spending of $29.3 billion had been projected; in the event, little more than $20 billion was spent.

Mr Macleod is expected to announce another record surplus when he delivers his budget speech on Wednesday.

Estimates put that surplus at between $20 billion and $30 billion, which will push government reserves to more than $120 billion.

''Whatever Mr Macleod says he will have under spent by at least 45 per cent,'' said Mr Byres.

''Last year Mr Macleod said the surplus would be $15 billion and it was $22.5 billion.

''All the Government is doing is pushing projects back to and beyond 1997 and as a result the reserves are getting bigger and bigger with each passing year.'' In January the Government tried to boost public spending in an attempt to trim back the high surpluses for 1992-93.

All departments were instructed to approve construction and consultancy tenders without going through the usual course of seeking Legislative Council backing.

Despite the increased spending call, government departments failed to make a dent in the surplus.

Analysts yesterday rejected claims that Hongkong is heading for a series of budget deficits in the run up to 1997.

They said deficits would only be on paper and, in real terms, the territory can look forward to ever increasing surpluses.

''How can you justify deficits when you have such huge surpluses year after year,'' Mr Byres said.

'' Mr Macleod last year calculated that without any new tax initiatives, Hongkong could expect to accumulate a total deficit of close to $28 billion over the next four years.

The windfall surplus for last year is understood to have made it difficult for Mr Macleod to propose any new revenue measures, except for inflationary adjustments to fees and charges such as duties on tobacco and alcohol.

In the past two years a total of $24 billion in surpluses has been accumulated.