With the Budget Debate scheduled to begin tomorrow, we believe that it is important that all Guyanese understand the nature of Budgets, and have a perspective for evaluating the contributions in the National Assembly. First and foremost, a Budget is literally an opportunity to see whether the Government is putting its money where its mouth is: a concrete expression of its policy priorities.
Governments make all sorts of promises in policy statements and policy papers, but it is in their Budgets that we see whether those policies are being implemented, or whether the statements were merely public relations’ gimmicks. Of course, a Budget captures Government’s income and expenditure for one year, and not all policies can be implemented within that timeframe.
The PPP has traditionally been sticklers for translating their manifesto policies and goals into their Budgets, to make decisions in raising revenues and spending those revenues to satisfy the country’s competing needs. So, they should have an easier time explaining their policy choices. Both sides of the equation ought to be examined: what revenues will be brought in, and how those would be spent. In the past, most revenues came from taxes, loans and grants, but now everyone expects that, with oil revenues flowing in, all needs can be satisfied. Are the taxes still too high – both for individuals and businesses? It is up to the Government to defend the policy choices they made – especially at this take-off stage from the poverty we have been mired in for so long.
One of the most salient criteria in our polarised society will be to determine whether the spending is equitable. There are, of course, accusations by the Opposition of the Government discriminating against their constituency, and this will be the major sticking point during the debate. But we must also look at whether there are regional and municipal variations that are meant to address differing levels of relative poverty and deprivation. It is very important to examine claims about equity across all fault lines with factual evidence, and not mere perceptions and allegations. All Budgets have a redistributive function that is meant to address concerns about equity geographically, horizontally, and vertically.
Contraposed against concerns about equity is to examine whether the funds – which are ultimately the people’s assets – are being expended efficiently; that is, to get the biggest bang for the buck. For example, were funds allocated last year spent, and if not, why not? The Government has to ensure that those bottlenecks, whether in material or manpower, are resolved. The Government’s capital investment, which is so massive, must be questioned from this perspective. However, we must not sacrifice bureaucratic efficiency for equitable goals, since the function of all Budgets is to improve the lives of the people.
Then there is the question of effectiveness. Is the spending in sync with our national policy priorities, or are they being frittered away on boondoggles? There will always be disagreement on specific issues or policies, but the test must be whether the country would benefit. For instance, all Guyanese will agree that high-cost electricity has been a major constraint on our manufacturing expansion. Is the spending on the Gas-to-Shore project the most effective path to solving this challenge? Are there alternatives, in view of the availability of gas, in terms of timing in lowering electricity costs? Infrastructure has also been a major constraint to businesses and citizens. Is this also been addressed satisfactorily, accepting that there is no magic wand to have everything done immediately?
In Guyana, transparency in the decision-making process on utilising revenue and matching them to spending has always been a bugbear.
Questions about consultations with as wide a swathe of stakeholders as possible must be made – especially with Civil Society members from the business sector and the labour market. While Civil Society writ large should also be consulted, unfortunately, we have several organisations with axes to grind against the Government, and not necessarily for those they purport to represent.
Let the debates begin!