Last ditch budget talks for Monday

-opposition eyes concessions, signals $38B in cuts

President Donald Ramotar says the government is prepared to meet a joint opposition delegation on Monday morning to discuss the national budget, after APNU and the AFC tabled proposals for negotiations while signalling plans to slash a whopping $38B in proposed expenditure.

Ramotar has said government is prepared to meet the opposition delegation at 9am on Monday,just hours before the National Assembly is due to sit for the scheduled consideration of budget estimates.

Donald Ramotar
Donald Ramotar

Last year, amid strenuous objections from the government, the opposition carved out $20B from the budget, triggering a year of skirmishing in the courts and the National Assembly.

It is unclear whether there will be any substantive discussions on the 11 recommendations ranging from a 10% wage hike for the public service to the revocation of radio licences controversially handed out shortly before the 2011 general elections, as the consideration of the budget estimates is to get underway on Monday afternoon.

Yesterday, in his response to their recommendations seen by Stabroek News, Ramotar continued to blame the opposition for the delay in budget  talks and he also charged that the proposals sent to him have very little to do with the budget estimates.

Khemraj Ramjattan
Khemraj Ramjattan

APNU and the AFC, according to their letter to Ramotar, are seeking an across-the-board increase of 10% in wages and salaries for sugar workers and public servants. This, they say, would be without prejudice to the collective bargaining processes which are to be held with the workers’ representatives with effect from June 1, 2013.

They are also calling on the government to rescind all frequencies and licences for the broadcast spectrum issued in 2011 “prior to the establishment of the Broadcast Authority and outside of the provisions of the Broadcast Act 2011.”

They also want the government to fulfil all commitments regarding the issue of a licence to operate a television station in Region 10.

The letter appealed to the Government to provide a status report on the use to which capital injections provided in budget 2012 for GuySuCo and GPL have been put and the effect they have had. It also called for a commission of inquiry and a technical commission, respectively, to report on the operation of the two state entities.

It called on the government to reconstitute the Tax Reform Committee, to include members approved by all of the political parties, “with instructions to have them complete their work and report to you and the National Assembly by June 1, 2013.”

The parties called on government to properly and fully constitute the Integrity Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and Public and Police Service Commissions, the Teaching Service Commission, the Public Service Appellate Tribunal, the Guyana Elections Commission, the Supreme Court, the Director of Public Prosecutions’ Chambers, the Audit Office, and the Office of the Ombudsman “to ensure that budgetary arrangements for the provision of funds to meet their annual costs are consistent with Article 222 A of the Constitution.”

The parties forwarded too that government ensures that by June 1, 2013 all the extra budgetary agencies including National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) report to the National Assembly on the state of their current finances and transfer the excess resources they hold to the Consolidated Fund.

APNU and AFC called on the government to reform the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) including the implementation of the proposals for restoration of its viability in light of the 2012 actuarial report.

The parties also implored the government to reduce the toll for the Berbice bridge to $1,000; commence discussions to re-establish a professional public service pending which there will be a freeze on further recruitment of contract employees; and undertake a social and cultural audit into the work and professionalism of the NCN and GINA and immediately release the full report of the inquiry into wrong-doing at NCN.

In a lengthy letter responding to the Opposition’s correspondence, President Ramotar reminded the parties of the efforts the government has made to convene budget talks over the course of several weeks.

“I would like to remind you of the efforts, prior to the presentation of the 2013 budget, of my Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Singh, most particularly in the months of February and March 2013 with APNU and the AFC to convene meetings,” he said.

“More recently, at every conceivable level of engagement both in and out Parliament, this Administration has failed to elicit an unambiguous commitment from the Opposition parties to the talks,” the President said.

He noted that the disclosures at the recently held parliamentary Business Sub-Committee meetings held on Friday April 5, Monday April 8 and Tuesday April 9 with regards to the talks between the government and opposition “left the Administration with no other conclusion that such talks were not the Opposition’s priority in addressing their concerns about the 2013 budget.”

“Rather it was stated by the Opposition parties in those meetings that their priority was to hold talks between themselves as the main reason for the delay in the commencement of the estimates,” he noted, saying that this was despite commitments by AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan and APNU’s financial point man Carl Greenidge to submit their concerns regarding the estimates to the government on April 8, and April 11, respectively. He said no such information was forthcoming.

“Given this background, you can understand how surprised I was to be advised that a letter since yesterday April 11 which I received today April 12 containing the request to talk,” he said.

Ramotar noted that the recommended areas for talks outlined in the opposition’s letter “have little to do with the estimates themselves.” He also said that he has received motions from the AFC to the Parliament Office to cut over $38 billion from the 2013 budget.

He added that the government will now require time to examine the new developments and reminded that this was “exactly what we were trying to avoid when we offered to commence talks on Thursday April 4, 2013!”

Ramotar noted that it was stated by Minister Irfaan Ali that this weekend would pose a difficulty for the government, since persons would be otherwise engaged, but he noted government’s preparation to meet on Monday.

Both government and the opposition had made overtures during the budget debate about possibly meeting at the last minute to iron out concerns before the commencement of the consideration of the estimates. Greenidge said that once there is the will, adjustments can be made and changes accommodated during the deliberations next week.

Ramjattan said that the positions in the letter to the President were agreed jointly at a meeting between APNU and AFC during a meeting on April 10.

“We feel that this should be resolved before the Committee of Supply… the government must not feel that we are pressing them. These are entitlements of the Guyanese people,” Ramjattan said. He insisted that many of the proposed “amendments” will be aimed at cutting out “fat and wastage.”