35% of budget could be cut without affecting efficiency

–Chris Ram tells AFC forum

As much as 35% of this year’s budget can be cut without affecting the efficiency with which government services are delivered, according to chartered accountant and attorney Christopher Ram who also said it is a “travesty” that the budget cuts case is still in court.

Ram made the comments at an AFC-sponsored symposium on the 2013 National Budget at the Pegasus Hotel yesterday during which he also spoke about last year’s “absolutely justified” cuts and their impact. About five dozen persons attended the symposium including parliamentarians from the AFC and Ram urged them to ensure that they exercise proper stewardship over the people’s funds. No representatives from the PPP or the main opposition, APNU were observed by Stabroek News during that three-hour- long forum.

“My view is that this budget could be cut anywhere…between 25 and 35% without affecting the efficiency with which government services are delivered in Guyana,” Ram told the gathering adding that he would like to see this happen. Earlier, he had said that a ruling by Chief Justice Ian Change had given a decision on one item only and this was in relation to the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC).

Following the 2012 budget cuts by the Opposition, Attor-ney General Anil Nandlall had moved to the courts and Justice Chang in an interim ruling said that the National Assembly did not have the power to cut the budget but the court could not restore the funding sought by government, except for allocations to the ERC which is a constitutional agency and entitled to draw directly from the Consolidated Fund.

Despite the ruling, both APNU and the AFC have said that they will cut expenditures in this year’s budget that are “unlawful” or do not conform to financial regulations. The parties are awaiting a final decision and plan to appeal all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice if necessary. “I think that it is a travesty that we still have that budget cuts case hanging over us one year after the 2012 budget. The lawyers were asleep,” Ram said.

In terms of last year’s cuts, he said that there would have been a bigger deficit had the opposition not cut the $18 billion that was expected from the GRIF but which did not materialize last year. He pointed out too that the Guyana Elections Commis-sion only utilized a portion of the money that was initially allocated to it and they should have cut more.

Ram also pointed out that NCN has again been allocated money in the 2013 budget and the number of contract employees at the Office of the President has been spiralling. “What the estimates show is that there is no change in the number of contract employees and instead, in 2013, there will be an increase in the number of contract employees,” Ram said adding that the allocation since 2010 has increased from $220 million to $380 million.

Meantime, Ram said that he also believes that there is “something wrong” with the figures for the growth rate given by Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh in his Budget speech. Singh had said that real gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 4.8 percent in 2012.

Ram, to support his contention, said that construction was reported to have fallen by 11% last year but he noted that sand production increased by 76% last year while he learnt that there was a 24% increase in cement imports last year. Ram noted that these items are major components of construction and the figures cast doubt on other figures. The accountant also noted that borrowing and debt-servicing are reaching the critical stage where they may drag on national development.

He said that the budget is getting “too big” and urged the parliamentarians to look more closely at the stewardship of the people’s money. He said that he believes that the opposition can cut the budget. Ram questioned the use of the Committee of Supply if the Speaker says that they cannot cut the budget. A decision has to be made soon in the matter, he said.

Meantime, former Auditor General Anand Goolsarran in relation to the Chief Justice’s ruling said that it was correct on the ERC but other aspects are subject to varied interpretation. “It is obviously wrong for the Finance Minister to go to the Contingencies Fund to restore the original budget,” he said adding that it is undermining the authority of parliament. He suggested that the minister be sanctioned noting that “he is not subject to any immunity.” Goolsarran said that it is alarming that money is being spent without the approval of the National Assembly.

During the question and answer period, persons suggested that the opposition ought not to go into national elections without constitutional reforms being implemented. Some action against the finance minister for matters relating to the restoration of funds was also suggested.

AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan, in response, pointed to the provisions of the Financial Management and Accountability Act for sanctioning officials who break rules but noted there were some issues as it relates to the course of action in relation to a minister.