The National Assembly last evening approved over $8 billion in total budgetary allocations for 16 constitutional agencies even as the government’s failure to properly account for cuts to requested expenditure drew criticism.
“Capriciousness, nothing but capriciousness without framework or foundation,” was the refrain delivered to the National Assembly by Opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira during the consideration of the 2018 Annual Budget Proposals of 16 Constitutional Agencies and the recommendations and comments of the Minister of Finance thereon. This is the third year since an amendment to the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act granted these agencies financial autonomy. The amendment also necessitated that their lump sum allocations be considered separate from the regular budget.
During five hours of fervent debate, Teixeira and fellow opposition parliamentarians sought to extract from Minister of Finance Winston Jordan the rationale behind his decision to recommend that most constitutional agencies receive significantly less than their requested 2018 budget.
While the agencies had submitted budgets totalling more than $10 billion, the recommendations of the minister, which were eventually passed by the House, reduced their requests to just over $8 billion in total.
Throughout the mostly one-sided debate, Teixeira asked Jordan to explain the macro-economic outlook for 2018.
Jordan had accompanied each of his 16 recommendations with the comment that “the recommended allocation takes into account the macro-economic outlook for 2018 for revenue, expenditure and growth in the economy, challenges in implementation encountered in 2017 and annualisation of salaries.”
This proved a stumbling block for the opposition members, who noted that while the comment seems clear, they were yet to be apprised of the projections for revenue and expenditure.
“We must have a fiscal framework, within which the minister is deciding who gets what, otherwise it becomes capricious and when we begin to look at the constitutional bodies, there is definite indications of capriciousness,” Teixeira declared.
She further stated that the House might have to recognise that it made a mistake in allowing for these allocations to be debated before the presentation of the National Budget and suggested two remedies.
“Mr. Speaker, I recommend that in future the presentation of the annual budget precede any discussion on any agency getting money for that year, inclusive of constitutional agencies but for now… could the minister indicate to this house what are the projections for revenue, what is the macro-economic outlook so that we can adjudicate? What is macroeconomic framework? What are the fiscal frameworks he is using to guide those cuts?” Teixeira asked.
Jordan, however, when directed to answer, reminded that the budget presentation was 10 days away and added that “all the mysteries will be settled then.”
He also directed Teixeira to the Section of the Act which states that his recommendation shall be limited to the overall requests, while stressing that he had “fulfilled the letter and spirit of the Act.” He would refer to this section several times throughout the evening.
Incensed, Teixeira once again declared that Jordan and accused him of bullying.
She then directed her ire at Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Greenidge. According to Teixeira, Greenidge was passionate in the 10th Parliament about the autonomy of the agencies and led the way into passing the amendment, while consistently declaring that the budgets of these agencies should not be cut. “You brought an amendment and now you have a minister here undermining the very tenets of the arguments you brought in the Tenth Parliament. You talking out two sides of the mouth all the time,” Teixeira declared. She received no response to this declaration.
At the time, the House was discussing a $200 million reduction in the request brought by the Parliament Office. For 2018 Parliament Office requested $1,739,832. The minister, however, recommended $1,578,100. Teixeira moved a motion to have the allocation remain as requested. This motion was defeated 33 to 25.
When it came time to address the allocation for the Office of the Auditor General, similar dissent was voiced.
The Audit Office had requested $844,422,000 but Jordan recommended an allocation of $783,876,000.
Jordan reminded that all budgets are circumscribed by the availability of revenues projected or otherwise or the borrowing that will be sustainable but would give no details on what revenues are actually available.
Opposition Member of Parliament Priya Manickchand, in responding to Jordan’s refusal to provide details, told the House that the Minister “would subject himself to questions about why these allocations are the sums they are.”
“We ask how you arrived at this lump sum and the only response we have gotten is a very opaque, very bullish no comment. That is not the answer of someone who subjects himself to scrutiny… Remember that this House is made up of the government and opposition. It is not compromised of government, who will railroad through their cuts. We are asking questions… on behalf of the people of Guyana. We have questions based on the submission and we demand that they be answered so that we can be properly informed of how we must vote on this issue. If the minister refuses to answer, the nation will judge you. You are saying we have no role here this afternoon,” Manickchand stressed.
By 7.30 pm, all of the Finance Ministers recommendations had been passed. The Guyana Elections Commission, which requested a budget of $3.7 billion had been allocated $2.9 billion.
The newly constituted Public Procurement Com-mission has also seen its request reduced from $251 million to $177 million. Similar reductions in budgetary requests were made for all but three of the 15 agencies. The Minister recommended that the Teaching Service Commission, Judicial Service Commission and Human Rights Commission receive all $123 million, $10 million and $31 million they have requested, respectively. These were approved.
The Public Service Apellate Tribunal should, however, according to the Ministry receive less than half of the $105 million it has requested. Last year, that agency received $35 million and it has been recommended that it receive $51 million. This was approved by the House.
The Ministry explained that the increase from $35 million caters for full year operating expenses due to the appointment of a Chairman and two members in May, 2017.
Other allocations include $43 million for the Women and Gender Equality Commission, $42 million for the Rights of the Child Commission and $86 million for the Ethnic Relations Commission.