Returning sanity to budgeting process – Punch

Finally, the 2017 budget is ready for implementation after the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, signed it into law. As a fiscal and policy framework for business decisions, its delay for almost six months has seriously harmed the economy. Now that its execution will soon begin, how it will impact on the country’s economic recovery and growth plan, which President Muhammadu Buhari unfurled in April, should be the focus of all.

The N7.44 trillion budget has N2.058 trillion for capital expenditure, the highest ever provided. This is critical; the release of these funds to tackle infrastructural deficits in roads, power, transportation and housing, among others, will undoubtedly trigger an upward spiral in economic activities, leading to job creation and growth. Other components of the budget are N2.9 trillion recurrent; N1.6 trillion debt servicing, N419 billion statutory transfer, among others.

Already, the year is half gone. Why it took a country with a January-to-December budget cycle this long to roll out its spending plan will not cease to amaze. There is enough blame to go round. The President submitted the Appropriation Bill to the National Assembly on December 14, which he should have done much earlier. Unfortunately, the parliament, lacking any sense of urgency and patriotism, abandoned it till late January when the Senate began debating it, despite its pledge to pass it in February. Unnecessary holidays and political pettiness ensured its passage did not take place until May 9.

However, it took the Presidency more than a month to scrutinise the budget, during which it discovered thorough distortion, with the insertion of entirely new projects into it to suit lawmakers’ whims and caprices. Funds meant for the railway standard gauge, Mambila power project, Second Niger Bridge and Lagos-Ibadan Expressway were reduced, primarily to finance projects they had smuggled into the budget. “And therefore, we had to go into negotiations with the National Assembly in order to get it right,” Osinbajo fumed.

This ritual is debilitating and it has been on since 1999. The abuse stems from the lawmakers’ misreading of their power of appropriation as encapsulated in Section 80 (4) of the 1999 Constitution. In exercising this right, they pad the budget with projects such as boreholes, rural electrification, roads, health centres and town halls for their so-called constituency projects that gulp between N60 billion and N100 billion.

How this mangled the 2016 budget and its disproportionate distribution to members brought the immediate past Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation, Jubrin Abdulmumin, on a collision course with the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, and three other principal officers.  For exposing the racket, from which he also benefitted, the lawmaker was removed from his chairmanship and suspended for 180 legislative days.

Budget distortions by lawmakers have reached a noxious level that the Executive arm of government should no longer ignore. On Thursday, the lawmakers in both chambers took exception to Osinbajo’s view that it was not within their legislative purview to insert projects in the budget. Therefore, the solution to the impasse is for the Presidency to approach the Supreme Court for an interpretation of the much-abused Section 80. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua did so in 2009, but withdrew the case as he was pressured to seek a political resolution.

We believe that the power to prescribe the manner money should be withdrawn from the Consolidated Revenue Fund does not in any way mean the right to initiate or insert projects in the budget. With their ill-conceived nature, the projects are either badly executed or abandoned. Perhaps, this was why 2,399 projects were abandoned in 2013 alone, according to the then-Minister of Special Duties, Aminu Turaki.

This is galling; and the Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, expressed it last year when he drew the lawmakers’ attention to the Exclusive Legislative List that contains federal responsibilities.  He said, “I say this because we must avoid the risk of crowded projects where legislators at the national level are made to implement constituency projects that involve primary health care centres, which are for the local governments.”

Section 81 (1) of the Constitution that vests in the President the power to prepare budget estimates is not in any way ambiguous. That responsibility is not shared between it and the parliament.

Sanity should return to our budgetary process, beginning with a return to the January-December budget cycle. Though Osinbajo has initiated the process that will see the 2018 Appropriation Bill submitted in October to achieve this goal, all we need is to see it happen. Previous administrations expressed the same desire but failed, just as the ugly sides of the 2016 budget, which the President vowed would never be repeated, resurfaced and helped to overstretch the delay to 180 days.

The Minister of Budget and National Planning Udo Udo-Udoma was, therefore, right when he said on Tuesday that “delayed national budgets are generally considered as indicative of poor public financial management,” and we add, irresponsible governance. We expect him to move away from rhetoric to action as the minister in charge of budget, by ensuring that the October budget submission deadline is entrenched.

Each year the budget is milled from this shambolic process, the country plays into the hands of our kleptomaniac bureaucracy and politically exposed persons, always there to subvert due process and transparency associated with its execution. The country cannot get the best from a budget implemented with a disorganised approach. Building capacity in budgeting is critical, just as the integrity to follow best practices in its implementation is the only guarantee of the intended objectives.

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