Government is seeking shelter for $4.55 billion of extra-budgetary expenditure under an article of the constitution that is not applicable, former Auditor General Anand Goolsarran says and he roasted Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh’s actions as disrespectful and contemptuous of the National Assembly.
The government on June 19, 2014 tabled Financial Paper 1 of 2014 as a statement of excess seeking to clear money which had not been approved by the opposition as part of its $36.7 billion paring of the 2014 budget. Among the agencies affected were GINA and NCN which the opposition have had longstanding concerns over and had therefore sought to deny provisions to for the last three years. Despite this, these two agencies were funded for the first half of this year and Singh’s statement of excess was meant to cover this.
The opposition parties have since signalled that they will not vote for what they term the unlawful expenditure by Singh and the financial paper has brought the country closer to a possible no-confidence motion which can bring down the government and trigger new elections. In recent days, President Donald Ramotar and senior government officials have scrambled to address the assertions by the opposition that the expenditure is illegal.
On Sunday, Legal Affairs Minister Anil Nandlall issued a statement defending the Minister of Finance over the expenditure.
Nandlall cited article 218 (3) of the constitution as follows:
218 (3 ) “If in respect of any financial year it is found –
(a) that the amount appropriated by the ( A ) Appropriation Act for any purpose is insufficient or that a need has arisen for expenditure for a purpose for which no amount has been appropriated by that Act ; or
( b) that any monies have been expended for any purpose in excess of the amount appropriated for that purpose by the Appropriation Act or for a purpose for which no amount has been appropriated by that Act, a supplementary estimate or, as the case may be, a statement of excess showing the sums required or spent shall be laid before the National Assembly by the Minister responsible for finance (or any other Minister designated by the President)”.
Nandlall said that in spending the monies as he did, and laying in the National Assembly a Statement of Excess of the sums spent, the Minister of Finance has acted in accordance with “the letter and spirit of Article 218 (3).”
However, Goolsarran writing in his column of yesterday’s edition of Stabroek News said the reference to Article 218 (3) is not applicable.
He argued that one section of Article 218 (3) caters for expenditure above what had been appropriated. The excess would usually be a small figure relative to the amount that had been voted. However, this would not be applicable to the present situation as the opposition had not voted any money for these programmes. Article 218(3) (b) which is what the government is relying on is not applicable to this scenario, Goolsarran said, as it may have been intended for extreme circumstances such as a national emergency.
“While Article 218 (3) envisages a second situation regarding excess expenditure where there has been no appropriation, in my years of experience as Auditor General, I cannot recall any instance of moneys being withdrawn from the Consolidated Fund for this purpose. The reason is simple: (a) there is recourse to the use of the Contingencies Fund, assuming all the criteria have been met regarding the urgency of the expenditure; or (b) there is provision for a supplementary estimate to be tabled in the Assembly seeking prior authorization of the expenditure. Besides, there was deep respect for the general principle that it is Parliament that controls the public purse and that no expenditure can be incurred without Parliamentary approval. The supremacy of Parliament in this regard was unquestioned.
“The second part of Article 218 (3) may have been inserted to cater for some extreme circumstance, for example, a national disaster of great magnitude, where it is not possible to secure the ex ante approval of the Assembly, or recourse to the Contingencies Fund is not possible because it may have been exhausted”, Goolsarran asserted.
He said that one would have thought that Singh would have employed the provision in the first part of Article 218 (3) for prior authorisation by way of supplementary estimate. He said that if the Assembly denied the request then the expenditure would not be incurred.
“Why run the risk of authorising withdrawals from the Consolidated Fund when there is so much uncertainty as to whether the Assembly will approve of the related expenditure? Should the Assembly reject Financial Paper 1/2014 partially or in its entirety, will the Minister not be held liable for causing unauthorised expenditure to take place?” Goolsarran asked.
In his column yesterday, he said he had suggested that in order to restore the budget for the essential services affected by the Assembly’s decision, the Finance Minister could make withdrawals from the Contingencies Fund until such time that the Assembly met to consider a supplementary estimate covering the rest of the year. He said the combined opposition had indicated that it would have no problem with such an estimate.
Goolsarran said the Minister followed neither of the two courses but has authorised withdrawals from the Consolidated Fund to cover expenditure where there was a specific non-approval for such by the opposition majority in the Assembly.
“The Minister’s action can be interpreted as one of disrespect and contempt for the Assembly, comprising members duly elected to represent the citizens of this country and of which he himself is an elected member.
He appears to have elevated himself above the highest decision-making body in the land in the belief that it is his budget. Article 218 (1), however, specifically refers to `estimates of revenues and expenditure of Guyana’. The budget is therefore that of the country, with the Minister acting as merely a conduit for its presentation that could have been done by `any other Minister designated by the President’”, Goolsarran argued.