2019 budget: Avoiding past legislative pitfalls – Punch

Parliamentary debates on the 2019 budget have just begun. The House of Representatives suspended its plenary last week for the lawmakers to focus on it, while the Senate gave its Appropriations Committee two weeks to table a report on its work for a final consideration. The accelerated consideration is crucial, given the catalytic effect of the budget on the economy.

Details of the N8.08 trillion budgetary proposal show that it has a recurrent vote of N4.04 trillion as against a capital provision of N2.03 trillion – the usual lopsidedness in favour of the former that has not provided any impetus for economic development. With estimated revenue of N6.97 trillion, it leaves the budget with a deficit of N1.86 trillion or 23 per cent of the total budget, which the country will sweat to finance.

It is sad that every budget in the country has in-built waste, duplication of items and orchestrated fraud perpetrated by our self-serving bureaucrats. Sub-heads like kitchen equipment, cutlery and office computers perpetually receive generous allocations. Huge funds are splurged on cars for the benefit of elected officials, appointees and senior civil servants in spite of the extant monetisation policy. A parliament that truly represents the people will change this narrative, as the economy remains vulnerable to recession.

A total of N2.14 trillion or 26 per cent of the budget has been set aside for debt servicing, out of which 80 per cent is devoted to offsetting local debts. The amount exceeds capital expenditure and it bodes ill for the economy. Personnel costs too form a huge outlay of N2.9 trillion, despite Federal Government’s deployment of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System to weed out “ghost workers.”

Match the provision for personnel against the N15 billion for the recapitalisation of the Bank of Agriculture and Bank of Industry; and the N10 billion set aside for the BoI  to subsidise interest rates on loans to Small Scale and Medium Enterprises, the obvious inference will be that the budget is not structured to deliver serious development. The SMEs, as economic growth drivers, deserve a better package. With a GDP growth rate of 1.9 per cent at the end of 2018, the 2019 budget should be used by the lawmakers to give the economy a shot in the arm. This is the expectation of Nigerians.

Regrettably, concerns that this might not be the case are not unfounded given the lawmakers’ notoriety for elevating their personal interest above that of the nation in every budget since 1999. In the 2018 budget, for instance, the lawmakers inserted 6,403 projects of theirs, valued at N578 billion; increased their own budget from N125 billion to N139.5 billion; slashed N347 billion on critical national projects such as the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and Second Niger Bridge to fund their so-called constituency projects.

The Bukola Saraki-led parliament should not exhibit such recklessness and insensitivity to public good with this year’s budget before it. With about two months for the Eighth National Assembly to be dissolved, passing this year’s budget without padding it for their selfish goals or, distorting it to render its implementation difficult for the Executive, is the only redeeming act left for it in the face of its woeful performance since 2015. If the President fails to sign the budget into law as a result of it being messed up with the usual distortions; and then passed on to the Ninth Assembly to clear, it would have been the out-going lawmakers’ final indelible odious legacy.

In this context, BudgetIT, a non-profit, devoted to accountability in the use of public finance, has asked the lawmakers to chart a new course by opening up their finances through a “line-by-line breakdown” of the allocations. This will wean it from being “an impregnable black box, which defies public scrutiny,” as the organisation put it.

Undoubtedly, Nigeria’s federal lawmakers rank among the highest paid in the world even against the backdrop of a Brookings Institution report last year that Nigeria is now poverty’s global capital. It took the candour of Shehu Sani, a senator, for the public to learn that a senator unjustifiably collects N13.5 million every month under the guise of “operational cost.” This is besides their monthly salaries.

As the National Assembly flounders with the budget every year, so is the Executive arm of government careless and irresponsible in articulating the fiscal document. It is incomprehensible that President Muhammadu Buhari submitted the Appropriation Bill to the joint session of the National Assembly on December 19, in an election year, even when he often verbally spanks the legislators for delayed passage. The lawmakers received the document amid a fracas and adjourned for Christmas and electioneering for the just-concluded general election, thus making the budget’s ongoing late consideration inevitable.

Nigeria should return to its old January-to-December budget cycle. This is the ideal; it will free the implementation from the present “fire-brigade” approach it is subjected to, which encourages corruption, assault on diligence and due process.

A budget should be seen as a vehicle for development. This explains why countries are abandoning yearly fiscal arrangement for three-to-10-year budget cycle. In New Zealand, for instance, the parliament finished work on the 2018 to 2028 budget last May. Instructively, it was subjected to an audit before the government could adopt it. Again, the Russian Duma (parliament) has passed its 2019 to 2021 budget, which has $62 billion surplus, according to Moscow Times. These are budgets driven by long term national planning as opposed to the caprices of the political party in power.

We don’t see why Nigeria should not change its current envelope budgetary system in favour of allocation of funds to sectors based on need. The budget should be submitted to the parliament latest in September for it to be ready for implementation in January. For this to happen, the Executive arm should do away with its habitual indolence and apparent lack of thoroughness in preparing the national budget. The envelope system is typical and should be stopped and replaced by zero-budgeting, based on current needs and national priorities.

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