Budget 2013 – Get ready to rumble

I take these words not from Dr. Roger Luncheon who used it around the time of the Agricola protests but from the American boxing announcer who trademarked it. There are eight working days to go to the constitutional deadline of “before or within ninety days after the commencement of the year” for the presentation of the national budget. With the practice being a prior announcement and none having yet been done, tomorrow Monday can be ruled out. That leaves seven days. The practice too has been to present the budget on a Monday or a Friday. That leaves Friday 22 and Monday 25 since Friday 29 is another public holiday. And here is where it gets a tad tricky: of the six budgets presented by Dr. Ashni Singh as Minister of Finance, three were presented on a Monday and three on a Friday. So take your pick.

My bet is that B-day will be Monday 25 to allow the government’s propaganda machinery to move into high gear, with Shadow Finance Minister Carl Greenidge being the prime target. Some of the propaganda was on display a couple nights ago on Jagdeo’s surrogate television station whose owner and friend Dr. Bobby Ramroop was granted practically universal coverage to broadcast television and or radio in Guyana in a move in what many hoped were the dying days of the Jagdeo presidency.

“Cynical”, “crude”, “vulgar”, “obscene” are too mild terms to describe Jagdeo’s action in a demonstration of abuse of office that required only a perverse mind to conceive. If there is one single incident of dozens that make it vital that the Constitution be amended to rid Guyana of the curse of the executive presidency, then Jagdeo’s action on sharing out the airwaves mainly to his friends and party supporters must surely be the straw. But back to the budget.

Missed opportunities
The 2012 budget was historic not only for its size. The stage for the battle over the 2012 budget was set on November 28, 2011 when the voters of the country placed control of the National Assembly in the hands of the opposition. This was too much for the PPP/C which had become accustomed to ruling, bullying, buying, penalizing, harassing and intimidating those not prepared to tow its line. Once again there was not even a charade of consultation envisaged in the directive principles as well as the fundamental rights enshrined in the Guyana constitution. With the wind in its sail, it was a chance for a united, reinvigorated opposition to assert its authority over public expenditure in Guyana.

On the last day permitted under the Constitution, the Minister of Finance presented his 2012 Budget with the theme “Remaining on Course, United in Purpose, Prosperity for All”, calling for expenditure of $193Bn, or 25% above 2011 spending. The budget included the sum of $4Bn for GuySuCo and $6Bn for Guyana Power & Light Inc., both state entities. While the opposition seemed to have had some idea of what it wanted, the leadership appeared confused on a clear and united strategy to challenge the Budget. After some initial differences between the AFC and the APNU whose leadership appeared to have sided with the Government on the contentious issue of the electricity tariffs in Linden, the parliamentary opposition settled down to addressing the expenditure side of the budget. Of course those initial differences caused a number of missed opportunities for stamping fiscal discipline on the entire project and process.

The Estimates of the Public Sector for the year 2012 were tabled as Bill No. 3 of 2012: Appropriation Bill 2012 with current and capital expenditure totaling $103.9Bn and $75.8Bn respectively. Of the dozens of budget agencies including known abusers of the public purse, only four were subject to any cuts, among which was GECOM for which the expenditure proposal was clearly excessive. And the real significant cut was to the budget of the Ministry of Finance in respect of expenditure out of LCDS funds which the Minister projected would be received. In many ways therefore the cuts were more symbolic than real. Principally they targeted NCN and the Office of the President where PPP/C politicians, long past their sell-by dates were put on the payroll to be paid by taxpayers, often at higher salaries and the same perks they previously enjoyed.

The cuts were reflected in Act No. 3 of 2012: Appropriation Act 2012 which was passed by the National Assembly on 26 April 2012 with current and capital expenditure totaling $101.7Bn and $57.0Bn respectively after cuts in five account lines:


Enter the courts
However, after the revised budget was approved without dissent by the entire National Assembly the Attorney General Anil Nandlall in his wisdom advised the Government to go to the court and challenge the power of the parliament – including the President – to cut the budget. The AG went to the courts for several orders for the restoration of the amounts cuts by the National Assembly, all of which were refused, except for the sum of $99,000,000 for the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC). The reason for restoring the amount for the ERC was that the ERC is a constitutional body subject to a direct charge on the Consolidated Fund. Accordingly, its budget allocation was not subject to a vote of the National Assembly.

For the other heads, the Chief Justice (ag) rejected the application of the Attorney General and denied the Minister of Finance the “liberty” to make advances/withdrawals from the Consolidated Fund to restore the $21 billion 2012 budget cuts. Opportunistically the government chose to misrepresent and possibly violate the ruling by the Chief Justice which was described in his written decision as being in its “preliminary stage” and that “the views expressed at this juncture are not final.” Unfortunately the lawyers for the Speaker Mr. Raphael Trotman and Mr. David Granger, the Leader of the Opposition who along with Dr. Ashni Singh were the defendants in the matter never pursued the case to finality. Mr. Nandlall and Drs. Singh and Luncheon did not allow this simple fact to get in the way of their story that the cuts were unconstitutional. There was simply no ruling except in respect of the ERC. I have no doubt that we will see a reprise of the battle over the 2013 budget.

Dr. Singh v Greenidge
But there is a larger and more practical point. From the following exchange between the Minister of Finance and his counterpart on the opposition benches, it appears that consistent with their belief, contrived or otherwise, the government found ways to restore the cuts as necessary, some by way of the parliamentary route and others from sources unknown. After all the government has so many public funds around the place which are subject to no oversight, that finding money is not a problem. Apart from what are in effect slush funds there is always NICIL and the GGMC to help when called upon.

Here is that exchange between Mr. Greenidge and Dr. Singh:



QUESTION by Mr. Carl Greenidge, M.P.

Would the Hon. Minister of Finance say whether monies cut from the Budget and not approval (sic) by this House have been restored to the Ministries? If so,

What categories and sums have been involved?

What is the legal basis for such payments?

What advice was provided on this matter by the Attorney General?

What section of the Chief Justice’s report/decision suggests that either the Chief Justice or the Ministry of Finance can restore cuts to the budget or that the Chief Justice can authorize the Ministry of Finance to make advances from the Consolidated Fund?

ANSWER – The Minister of Finance

Where the sums approved by the National Assembly under the Appropriation Act 2012 were found to be inadequate to meet the services of Government, supplementary financing was resorted to in accordance with the law.

The categories and sums involved have already been reported to the National Assembly in successive Financial Papers.

The Constitution and the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003.

The Attorney General confirmed in advance the appropriateness of the course of action adopted, which course of action was also approved by the Cabinet.

The Chief Justice made several relevant references to the Constitution.

There have been no substantial consultations on the 2013 budget nor have the political parties drawn any lines in the sand. Guyana is hardly any better off now than one year ago. Surely the budget is the occasion to get agreement on some vital requirements for governance. There should be no delay in appointing the Public Procurement Commission; in appointing and Ombudsman; in appointing a Chancellor and a Chief Justice; in establishing the Integrity Commission; in introducing anti-corruption legislation; in bringing the Judicial Review Act and the Access to Information Act into into effect; in reforming NCN and the Chronicle; holding local government elections; dealing with tax reform; and in activating the Constitutional Reform Commission.

The Budget cannot be divorced from these important elements in how the country is managed. Let us fix them now.

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