Gov’t, opposition budget talks stalled

- APNU looking at litigation over unapproved spending

Both the main opposition APNU and the AFC say are still waiting to hear from government on talks for next year’s budget.

At the same time, APNU’s financial point man Carl Greenidge says that the coalition’s legal team is examining mounting a legal challenge, all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), if necessary, over government spending not approved by the National Assembly.

Last year and this year, the opposition slashed the government’s proposed budget by $20 billion and $31 billion, respectively, which included allocations and subsidies for entities such as the Government Information Agency (GINA), however, the impact of the cuts have been limited.

Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh has said that allocations cut from the budget were lawfully restored when the sums approved were found to be inadequate using an interim ruling by acting Justice Ian Chang on the budget cuts as a guiding authority.

In his interim ruling on the 2012 cuts, Justice Chang held that the National Assembly did not have the power to cut the budget but said that the court could not restore the funding sought by government, except for allocations to the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) to perform its constitutional duties.

Speaking to Stabroek News on Thursday, Greenidge said that the party will not stand for government flouting the law. “If indeed government has spent money illegally, the opposition would have to seek recourse in the law courts and as high as the Caribbean Court of Justice. These are crimes punishable by law and many of them are offences [for which one can be imprisoned],” said Greenidge.

He added that the course of action taken by the opposition last year came not only as a result of a failure of attempts at dialogue but also because of unsatisfactory and illegal elements in the budget.

“I wrote to the Minister of Finance around September 10,” he said. “But the parties have never met. The Minister wrote to me on September 23, saying that a meeting was fixed for the following afternoon,” he said. However, because of the short notice given for the meeting, Greenidge noted that APNU could not positively respond to the invitation.

He said that the illegal elements in the budget cannot be addressed by dialogue. “Speaking to us cannot fix that… we are not prepared to allow the government to break the law,” he said.

However, Leader of the AFC Khemraj Ramjattan said that his party will be awaiting the final ruling by Justice Chang before deciding whether to launch an appeal to the Court of Appeal and if necessary onwards to the CCJ.

“We will wait on [the judge’s] decision rather than bring a separate litigation. [Justice] Chang will have to decide whether it was legal or not for the opposition to cut the budget. I am certain that the CCJ will rule that the opposition can cut the budget,” he said.

He also contended that the government is spending money in an illegal manner. “We will take it to the Court of Appeal and the CCJ,” he said, while adding that the AFC will respect whatever decision is handed down by the CCJ. On the budget talks, Ramjattan believes the opposition’s stance on the anti-money laundering legislation is the sticking point preventing tripartite talks on other issues to move forward. He said that government’s incendiary language in addressing the opposition, including linking the opposition to criminality, is not likely to see the opposition extending any cooperation to the administration on matters.

“Since August we have not heard anything,” said Ramjattan on arrangements on the budget talks between government and opposition. “I had indicated that we would still like to proceed since we wanted to talk on a number of issues we want to see as part of the budget, including tax [adjustments], salary increases, the sugar industry, the Berbice Bridge, subvention to the Critchlow Labour College,” he said.

“Thus far we have had no word back from the Minister of Finance. This might be because of the strained relationship from the opposition’s stance on the money laundering legislation. I do not feel that the government wants us to talk… we want to talk about NICIL and its behaviour in spending state monies,” he said.

“I rather suppose that when the Parliament opens [on Thursday], it will be bruising battles again. We are going to be very vigorous in our opposition. The president’s nonsensical statements will not see the opposition wanting to engage on matters,” he said.

This newspaper made contact with Minister Singh for a comment on the state of the budget talks but he could not comment at the time.