Sparks flew last evening in the National Assembly as government and the opposition clashed over why 16 constitutional agencies got only 60% of the total they had requested for their 2017 programmes.
This is the second year that lump sum allocations for these agencies are being considered separate from the regular budget in accordance with a financial autonomy law passed last year.
The 16 agencies, inclusive of the Parliament Office, the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), Public and Police Service Commissions, the Supreme Court, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Indigenous People’s Commission, collectively requested budget allocations totaling more than $11 billion dollars however after six hours of strife in the House they were granted a total less than $7 billion.
Minister of Finance Winston Jordan in presenting his recommended allocations argued that they were determined based on a fiscal profile for 2017 developed by the executive. This profile he explained was developed based on assumptions about the revenue which may be earned and loans which might be accessed.
“[Budget] Proposals by any agency whether constitutional or not are just that (a) proposal which must be scrutinized. At the end of the day when all the requests are put together they must be matched against the revenue profile we would’ve developed and our capacity to borrow,” he explained. This explanation augmented the sole comment submitted to the Speaker, Dr Barton Scotland in relation to the variance in the requested and recommended allocations.
The comment stated that each “recommended allocation is made in context of existing fiscal space and the consideration of the agency’s request with the national development priorities.” By the end of the consideration of the allocations “fiscal space” had become a refrain on both sides of the house.
Opposition Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira was the first to challenge its definition and use. When after Jordan had explained that the government was recommending an allocation of $1.519 billion dollars for Parliament Office, which was more than $200 million less than the $1.723 billion requested, Teixeira offered to help government find the “fiscal space” to finance the operations of constitutional agencies.
“What were the considerations within the national development priorities? The honourable member talks about fiscal space but I can suggest where there is fiscal space,” she said, before asking for Jordan to say what happened to the US$780 million of “fiscal space” the present government inherited from the former PPP/C administration.
Teixeira argued that the fiscal space was probably gone in the $1.17 billion which was awarded to BK International, the $5 billion to Demerara Distillers Limited and the US$16 million to the Surinamese beverage company, Rudisa. These expenditures, she stressed, were perhaps the reason that the budget allocations were cut. All three of the payments by government listed by Teixeira have been controversial.
After Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Greenidge objected to the opposition’s continued use of the word cut Teixeira said “you don’t want de word cut. We could use the word reduction. We could use the word variation. We could use the word differential. It means the same thing. You have reduced the allocations requested. I know the word cut hurts. The minister is used to as a finance person cutting and slashing all over the place that is part of the job at the Ministry of Finance. In your determination of fiscal space Minister, please enlighten the House of how you come to your determination so that we can comprehend and appreciate your reasons for having varied and amended these requests.”
Her colleague, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, Irfaan Ali supported her call asking for the Minister to explain to the House what exactly were the assumptions used to construct the government’s idea of “fiscal space.”
Jordan however did not respond to the request saying instead that the House was “grazing” rather than addressing the matter before them.
Incensed, Ali told the House that while the Minister has the right to make a lower recommendation the House also has a right to examine the actions of the minister and to ask questions to ensure that the minister’s actions are in the best interest of the people. Buffeted by the loud heckling of the government side of the House, Ali stressed that “it cannot be that we are just bringing these things here and the Finance Minister does not have to respond to the question. The Minister has a duty and responsibility to respond to the questions from the oppositions. He has acted based on a set of assumptions all we want is for the people of Guyana and the agency to understand what are those assumptions.”
At this point Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo accused the PPP of violating Guyana’s constitution and the standing orders of Parliament by attempting to debate the allocations so as to score cheap political propaganda points.
“…the PPP comes with the sanctimonious posture that they are defending the constitutional agencies. The constitution does not say there shall be a debate, it says that there shall be a request and a review. Stop misleading this House in your attempt to start a debate”, Nagamootoo said while fighting his own share of vociferous heckling in an attempt to be heard.
After hours of similar attacks and counter attacks Minister Jordan’s recommended allocations were passed. The PPP/C were silent on some and voted against others.
During those hours the Minister refused to state whether he would be willing to consider supplemental funding for a proposed house-to-house registration programme by GECOM.
The Minister had stated at the beginning of the consideration that the allocations for constitutional agencies once passed by the House cannot be reduced but could be varied upwards via supplemental requests which the government might be willing to entertain.
However during the consideration of the GECOM allocations which had been reduced to $2 billion, less than half of a requested $5 billion the Minister would not commit to accepting such a request. He chose instead to reiterate that a supplemental will be entertained if the “fiscal space” allowed. The government had argued that the allocation was reduced from the $3 billion approved for this year because there will no General and Regional Elections or Local Government Elections as was the case in 2015 and 2016.
This was the second time that the Assembly considered the budgets of constitutional agencies separately, necessitated by legislation that was passed in 2015 to provide for their financial autonomy.
The Fiscal Management and Accountability (Amendment) Bill 2015 was passed after being piloted by Jordan, who emphasised that the financial autonomy given to the constitutional agencies would not exclude them from having to meet accounting and auditing standards.
“The removal of all vestiges of interference by the Executive into the affairs of the constitutional agencies will boost the public’s confidence in the operations and decisions of these bodies,” Jordan told his colleagues in the House then.