Targeting proposed budgetary allocations for both the National Communica-tions Network (NCN) and Government Information Agency (GINA), the parliamentary opposition yesterday voted down the entire $5.1B Office of the President (OP) budget for Administrative Services, sinking funding for other unrelated entities in the process.
While making it clear that there was no issue with the other entities that will be affected, including Castellani House, the Guyana Energy Agency (GEA) and the Guyana Office for Investment (Go-Invest), both APNU and AFC speakers said they could not approve funding for NCN or GINA, for which they said the government was using taxpayers’ money to fund for partisan purposes.
The opposition had voted to cut subsidies for both agencies to $1 during the consideration of the budget estimates in the two preceding years and members yesterday again questioned under what authority the government was continuing to channel money into both of them. The government said the authority was derived from the preliminary ruling by acting Chief Justice Ian Chang’s that the National Assembly had no authority to cut the estimates but rather could approve or disapprove them in their entirety. It would appear that even though the subventions for these agencies were cut again this year that the government will continue to fund them.
While OP’s budget for current and capital expenditure under the heading Administrative Services was voted down, the salaries for contract workers listed under its $830M Presidential Advisory (Cabinet and Other Services) budget and its $65M Defence and National Security budget were both spared by the opposition.
Other entities that would be affected should the funds for Administrative Services not be approved before the passage of the Appropriation Bill by the National Assembly are Castellani House; the GEA; Go Invest; the Insti-tute of Applied Science and Technology; the Integrity Commission; the Office of the Commission-er of Information; the Office of the First Lady; and the Presidential Guard Service.
AFC MP Moses Nagamootoo initiated the heated exchange yesterday between the government and the opposition in the Committee of Supply, where they accused each other of not acting in good faith. Nagamootoo pointed out that the government was aware of the opposition’s concerns regarding NCN and GINA being funded by taxpayers for partisan political purposes. “The government is aware that we have problems with the use of taxpayers’ money to subsidise entities used for partisan political purposes… and they have refused to democratise them but instead they are bundled here with other line items [with] which we have absolutely no problem,” he noted.
Nagamootoo then accused the government of withdrawing from the tripartite budget sub-committee initiated by Speaker Raphael Trotman to facilitate negotiations on contentious estimates but even before he sat down Government Chief Whip Gail Teixeira was on her feet to refute this claim.
“There is no such thing,” she said in relation to the government’s alleged withdrawal from the committee, while adding that following a meeting with Trotman some agreements were made but these were breached the very next day by the opposition.
“The government did not withdraw. We were actually shut out… and, Mr Speaker, I cannot stand and listen to the Honourable member misinform the Guyanese public on what transpired. The government was deliberately shut out by the opposition breaking the agreement on how we were to proceed,” she said.
APNU Chief Whip Amna Ally then said that the information requested by the government was sent the very next day and at a later meeting the opposition turned up but government did not. She said the opposition wanted to have the matters discussed and settled unlike the government, which she said “disrespected the Speaker’s establishment of that committee.”
However, Teixeira said that the meeting was actually cancelled by Trotman—she read an email to substantiate this —following the opposition’s failure to provide information to the government by the agreed time. It was only after that an email was sent to her by Ally and copied to others which listed four areas that the opposition would not approve. APNU’s information, she said, signalled a lack of room for discussion, while the AFC, she noted, provided no information.
APNU’s Shadow Minister of Finance Carl Greenidge joined the exchange and noted that when the government had feared that the proposed sum for GuySuCo would have been cut, it attended a meeting with the opposition. When it came to the Amerindian Development Fund, he added, “because they saw it as a propaganda item” they did not attend and instead mobilised Amerindians to protest. “Mr Chairman, I think it is a sad day we have arrived at because there are many issues here that could be resolved if the other side showed good faith…,” he said.
But Finance Minister Ashni Singh said the government had made it clear from the inception that meaningful discussions could only be had if the government was provided with an “exhaustive list” of the areas of concerns identified by the opposition. To date, he noted, that list has not been submitted by the opposition. “The opposition cannot ask us to compromise on areas which have not even been identified as yet and in the absence of an exhaustive list there is no basis for discussion,” Singh added.
Following the heated discussion, Trotman, said that he found it “unfortunate” that discussions that took place in Chambers and via email could form part of open discussion in the House but noted that “I guess this is what democracy has come to and the people have a right to know.”
Under the 2014 estimates, the capital expenditure for NCN and GINA was pegged at $60.5M and $8, respectively. It was also revealed that the $81M budgeted last year for NCN and the $135M for GINA, which were both cut to $1, was actually spent.
It was APNU’s Christopher Jones who noted that the National Assembly had last year reduced the sums to $1 for both entities but the estimates reflected that the originally budgeted sums were actually spent.
“Mr Chairman, we relied and were guided by the Chief Justice’s ruling,” Minister in the Ministry of Finance Juan Edghill responded. Greenidge promptly rose and pointed out that the National Assembly is guided by the Constitution, which requires the House specifically to approve expenditures from the Consolidated Fund. “If the House acted wrongly in cutting an expenditure it does not authorise, his decision cannot authorise anybody else to spend. So who exactly is authorising and has been authorising the minister to spend? Which article of the Constitution?” Greenidge asked.
Addressing the issue, Attorney General Anil Nandlall stated that consequent to Justice Chang’s preliminary ruling, which has since been made final, Cabinet requested that he prepare an opinion on whether or not the cuts could have been restored and he advised that this can be done under Article 218 (3) of the Constitution, which caters for supplementary expenditure.
However, Greenidge said nowhere does the Constitution say that expenditure from the Consolidated Fund may be effected in circumstances other than with the approval of the House. He added that the basis for the expenditures for the two entities still needs explaining. He said that there is no way that salaries nine months after they would have been due can be regarded as matters that are urgent.
The exchange between the two sides on the issue continued until it was brought to an end by Chairman Trotman, who stated that he was not going to allow a debate on the issue as it was the estimates that were being considered. “It is either we approve of the sums or we don’t agree of the sums,” Trotman said.
Giving notice that the budgeted sum would not be approved, Greenidge said that given the “unconstitutional actions by the government” by spending monies that was not approved by the House, the opposition was not going to approve the expenditure.
Meanwhile, following queries from AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan, Edghill revealed that last year NCN earned $476M in revenue, apart from its subvention from the government. He also revealed that NCN has some 236 staff members, with 177 being permanent staff and 59 temporary workers.
AFC Cathy Hughes asked how much funds GINA derived from placing advertisements for the government for 2012 and 2013. While Edghill pointed out that the agency operates on behalf of the government and is not a commercial entity, the AFC MP said that it is standard that it derive a commission of 15%. Under further probing, Edghill said that GINA was prepared to provide a statement on the matter by today and this time was later reduced to within an hour as indicated by GINA Head Neaz Subhan. Edghill later revealed that the last audit of GINA’s operations covered the period 2004 to 2007, while adding that the auditors are working on 2008. However, he said all the financial reports have been submitted for the following years to the Auditor General’s Office.
Following questions by APNU MP Joseph Harmon, Edghill revealed that under a heading titled “other,” $69M was being requested this year largely for the Information Communication Technology (ICT) programme coupled with paying for the printing of the official gazette, chemicals for the Castellani House swimming pool among others.
Out of the $245M budgeted for last year under the same heading, only $66M was spent and the minister said out of that sum $178M was directly for the ICT programme, which the government had hoped would have been advanced. But the “expenditure was not incurred,” he noted.
The sum of $50.5M was also requested to cover vehicles and in answer to APNU MP Annette Ferguson, Edghill said that there are a total of 102 vehicles at the Office of the President, of which 15 are about to be sold because of their age and state of disrepair. The money being sought was to purchase six vehicles.