House passes Bill to streamline budgetary process

– constitutional bodies’ national budgets to be combined

The PPP/C Government on Thursday used its one-seat majority to amend the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act (FMAA) in order to streamline the budget process so as to improve efficiency and the effectiveness with which Parliament can consider the budget of the various constitutional agencies.
The Fiscal Management and Accountability (Amendment) Act 2021 seeks to amend the FMAA Chapter 73:02 to allow for the correction of a number of anomalies relating to the budget process for the constitutional agencies.

Finance Minister, Dr Ashni Singh

The legislation was tabled at last Thursday’s sitting, by Senior Minister with responsibility for finance, Dr Ashni Singh, who noted that his amendments will fix the process implemented by the previous APNU/AFC regime in 2015 to have the constitutional agencies present their budgets separately from the National Budget.
“The then amendment [by the Coalition] articulated a two-stage process whereby the budgets of constitutional agencies would be brought to the National Assembly, considered by the Assembly and approved, and then incorporated into the National Budget, which would subsequently be submitted to the House for consideration, at which time the budgets for the constitutional agencies would not be reconsidered by the House,” Dr Singh noted.

Attorney General Anil Nandlall

According to the Finance Minister, his Government is now moving to remove that two-step process and combine them into a single presentation to the National Assembly for consideration.
He pointed out that the framers of the Constitution had gone at length to specify that the budgets of the constitutional agencies are required to be a part of the process of determination of the national budget.
Further, Dr Singh went on to outline that matters of a financial nature are vested in the Executive, that is, the President, who in turn designates this responsibility to the Finance Minister. This constitutional provision, along with others, was violated with the Coalition’s amendments, the Finance Minister argued.
Nevertheless, the proposed amendments to the FMAA were passed on Thursday evening after the third reading.
However, this was not without opposing arguments from the Opposition Members of Parliament.
APNU/AFC Parliamentarian Khemraj Ramjattan insisted that the APNU/AFC had a “good purpose” for its 2015 amendments.

Opposition MP Khemraj Ramjattan

As such, he noted that the PPP/C Government should not “throw out the baby with the bath water” but “learn to develop and evolve. A living Constitution this thing is, so let’s breathe life into it rather than abort that extension that was grown out of the 2015 fiscal amendments… that was given some backbone to grow… What we’re doing here is a clip of the wings, an abortion, and that is not right.”
Ramjattan, who served as Public Security Minister in the previous administration, and is currently the Leader of the AFC, added that having the budgets of the constitutional agencies dealt with separately should not be a problem, as it reduces the number of agencies the Finance Minister has to deal with.
Meanwhile, another Opposition MP, Senior Counsel Roysdale Forde, argued that these amendments were a move by the PPP/C Administration to take control of the constitutional agencies. He pointed out that the Coalition’s 2015 amendments and the PPP/C’s current amendments reflect a divergence in the philosophy of the two sides in the House.
“Whilst the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change 2015 amendments reflected the ethos of decentralised government, enhancing and empowering the constitutional agencies, compliance with the Constitution; on the other hand, the PPP Civic has not changed, and is here reflecting its philosophy of centralised Government and capturing the independence of the constitutional agencies,” Forde contented.
However, Attorney General and Legal Affairs Minister Anil Nandlall dismissed those contentions.
“We were careful, in inserting the amendments which we are proposing, that the budgets of the constitutional agencies be determined by the official in charge of the constitutional agency in consultation with the Minister of Finance, but that official remains in charge… The official is the dominant persona in the creation of the budget… and there is a process there that allows the financial officer to adjust based upon the needs of his constitutional agency,” he posited.
According to the Attorney General, the purported fiscal autonomy that the Coalition claimed to have given these constitutional agencies was taken back because the budgets of the constitutional agencies were presented as a lump sum, and so whenever there are cuts, it would be in a lump sum. He noted that when this happens, the constitutional agencies had to go back and adjust their entire work programme for the budgeted year.
Nandlall went on to note that the previous administration had removed the constitutional entities from financial scrutiny, which is one of the fundamental functions of Parliament apart from law-making, and now the PPP/C Government is trying to bring these agencies back into regularity.
“They have hived off a whole set of entities and make their monies not susceptible to any form of scrutiny… This bill seeks to bring back into parliamentary oversight a lot of monies that were spent without parliamentary scrutiny,” he explained.