Budget passage closer… -after gov’t, APNU deal

-AFC cuts defeated

APNU has signalled that it would work with the government for the approval of the national budget and joint talks yesterday produced an increase in the old age pension to $10,000 along with the opposition coalition’s decision to withhold support for the AFC’s move to cut public spending.

After meetings between Speaker Raphael Trotman and members of both government and opposition delayed the start of the sitting of the National Assembly by three hours, the 26 members of main opposition APNU withheld their votes when AFC member Khemraj Ramjattan attempted to move amendments to cut $3.8 billion in spending from the budget. Government accused the AFC of threatening the livelihood of contracted workers with its proposal and hundreds of workers took to the streets in protest at Ramjattan’s motion.

The motion was, however, defeated hours after a government team led by President Donald Ramotar and including Finance Minister Ashni Singh met with an opposition team comprised of Opposition Leader David Granger and APNU MPs. There was no representative from the AFC.

Speaker Raphael Trotman (centre) and Prime Minister Sam Hinds (left) yesterday during an adjournment in the business of Parliament.

Trotman told Stabroek News that the activities of yesterday where there was a motion to amend the estimates and where the government sought to hearken to the call of the opposition with regard to old age pensions showed that democracy in Guyana has matured.

Among amendments in his motion, Ramjattan objected to an allocation for the Ministry of Housing for security services in the amount of $18.8 million, up from $7.3 million in 2011. Ramjattan’s motion proposed to slash the allocation by half as he was not satisfied with the answers that Minister of Housing Irfaan Ali was providing on why the allocation had increased by such a magnitude.

“I got a little chastened by the fact that it was not supported,” Ramjattan later said of his motion. “I was not satisfied with the Minister’s answers in relation to upping the security for the Ministry. We weren’t impressed at all and we indicated that we are now going to utilise the fact that we have an amendment there to vote for the amendment, and we did that,” he added.

Prior to tabling the motion, the AFC did not seek to enlist the support of APNU for the proposed cuts. Ramjattan explained that without the notice of amendments, there was “absolutely no possibility” for making any changes to the budget estimates. He said that APNU abstained from the vote on the motion and “that’s their right” but added that if the AFC could have gotten its support, “at least it would have been there and it could have been done.”

Government whip Gail Teixeira (right) conferring with Finance Minister Ashni Singh yesterday.

Although the motion was defeated, Ramjattan said he was happy it created a stir and he said AFC deserved some credit for the announced increase in the old age pension. “They (government) went back, they managed to get people in the streets and they also were so concerned that they increased the pensioners’ benefit to $10,000. I think [my actions] did play a role and a massive role at that,” he said. The budget had increased the old age pension from $7,500 to $8,100.

“It also played a role for the Minister of Finance to make commitments that he is going to now see where other of our core demands is going to be met. It had its effect and I am proud of what I did and I am proud of the Alliance For Change for moving that amendment. It created history and it also created some benefits–at least for this stage–for the pensioners,” Ramjattan said.

He said that the AFC, after scanning the items on the agenda for yesterday’s sitting, considered moving motions for other cuts. “And also realising that there might not be  support coming from APNU, we did not bother tabling the notice. We did have some indications of some cuts to be made,” he added.

Ramjattan said that he will be tabling some more amendments but this is solely dependent on whether the AFC is able to garner the support of APNU. “That will be the basis for the tabling of those [amendments],” said Ramjattan.

Willingness

Commenting on the meeting between the government and the opposition yesterday and its eventual result, Singh said that government has always been open to receiving the views of the other parties.

“I would say that the discussions were cordial [and] demonstrative of a willingness to work together and I was very encouraged by those discussions as a result of which we made the decision to increase old age pensions to $10,000 a month,” he said, adding that government is examining the impact of this decision with regard to expenditure. “I think that the opposition understood better too some of the constraints in which we operate and I was happy that they availed themselves of that opportunity,” said Dr. Singh.

“In fact, within the context of the inter parliamentary party dialogue forum…I made that point, saying if you have views put them in writing and submit them to us and we would receive them,” he said.

Singh also spoke of the failures of that dialogue process, which at times proved frustrating to the opposition. “We knew that there would be an opportunity within the context of the consideration of the estimates for us to allow the numbers to be scrutinised, for explanations and clarifications and ultimately to put the numbers to a vote,” he said.

“I would say that these things are never easy because we are dealing with extremely finite resources, we are dealing with competing demands for those resources and there really is no line item, programme or project which has resources allocated to it and which cannot be justified,” he added.

“Let us hope that having had those discussions and committed to continuing the engagement going forward that this translates to consideration of the estimates in a similar tone,” Dr. Singh further said.

Not left out

Granger, meanwhile, told the media in a brief comment that among the concerns taken to the President were those on old age pensions, the employment of public servants, and the University of Guyana, among others. “[These] would be reviewed by the government side so that we wouldn’t attempt to proceed with a budget which left these important issues out and it was in this regard that we were invited to a meeting with the President this morning and these matters were put on the table,” Granger explained.

He noted that there are about 10 major issues on the table. “We are not interested in dismissing public servants…we are not interested in stopping the government from functioning. We are interested in transparency and accountability…we are interested in outcomes, not in confrontation,” he said. He stated too that the meeting discussed concerns raised about the government holding company, National Industrial & Commercial Investments Ltd (NICIL) and the need for funds that it garners from the disposal of state property to go into the Consolidated Fund.

Asked whether the AFC was a part of the meeting, he said that the meeting was between him as Leader of the Opposition and the President and his team. “It was to deal with the issues which had [been raised] by APNU,” he added.

Granger, however, said that APNU has had meetings with AFC and because of this, the former is aware of the concerns of the AFC. “So we made every effort to ensure that the concerns of the AFC were not left out and in fact by the end of this process, all of the concerns of APNU and AFC will be put on board. So there is no attempt to exclude any of the parties,” he added.

Asked whether he was satisfied with the $10,000 old age pension, Granger said in economics “you never get total satisfaction of the things you ask for. We are aware of the size of the overall budget and we do not think it is possible to increase the size of the budget. So we are looking to see what parts of the budget could be modified to provide funds for the items which we feel are of greater importance,” he said. “You cannot get total satisfaction… we are looking for a negotiated settlement. We have to give and take. We have to compromise,” he said. “We are satisfied that in our discussions, we are representing the interest of the old age pensioners, the public servants and the other people we spoke about,” he added.

Asked whether VAT was on the table for review, Granger, saying he did not want to compromise the discussions with the government, noted that from the campaign and from what was said during the debate, APNU is concerned about the level of the VAT. “But the whole issue of taxation is much bigger than the VAT,” he said, while noting that the tax review committee that the government put together is still in its early phase for any proper assessment of that initiative to be had.

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