Government passes fiscal management bill
PNCR protests 'haste' on complex legislation By Johann Earle
Stabroek News
December 16, 2003

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After four hours of debate, the Fiscal Management and Accountability Bill was passed by the National Assembly yesterday, although the PNCR MPs had by then walked out in protest.

PNCR frontbencher Winston Murray later told Stabroek News that the walkout was prompted by the government's refusal to refer the 87-clause Bill to a select committee.

He said this was in contravention of a decision of the Parliamentary Management Committee that all complex bills should be referred to a select committee.

Despite the walkout, parliament approved some of the amendments proposed by Murray, including harsh penalties for ministers caught misappropriating funds.

The Bill gives the minister of finance powers to borrow for meeting budgetary cash shortfalls, funding government's investment and infrastructure projects and financing a budget deficit.

The government's justification for the urgency in passing the Bill was that it would pave the way for debt relief of US$30M per year for the next 20 years from the World Bank and the International Mone-tary Fund (IMF). To this end, a meeting in Washington DC is planned for tomorrow so that Guyana's case can be put forward, said Minister of Finance Saisnarine Kowles-sar, who presented the legislation.

But the opposition parties also objected to the short time that they had to consider the bill, saying that they received it only two working days before it was laid in Parliament.

The Bill was laid on Thursday and PNCR MPs said they had received it on Tuesday. Members of the Guyana Action Party/Working People's Alliance (GAP/ WPA) and the Rise, Organise and Rebuild (ROAR) said that they had received the Bill on Wednesday.

GAP/WPA member Sheila Holder yesterday said the message was the government wanted funds rather than embracing the paradigm shift of proper financial management. She called the rushing of the bills through the National Assembly unconstitutional as it denied civil society and other interest groups the right to be involved in the process.

In a letter to Kowlessar sent before the debate, Murray had pointed out that in perusing the Bill a number of concerns had surfaced. One of these is that the legislation may be in contravention of the Constitution, in particular the clauses dealing with the Contingencies Fund and with multi-year drawing rights in advance of the passing of the Appropriation Act.

Another is that it has far-reaching effects on the legal force of other legislation, the ramifications of which have to be carefully studied: Specifi-cally Parts II, III and IV of the Financial Administration and Audit Act are being repealed and, presumably, the contents thereof are being accommodated in the Bill or are being modified and included in the Bill or are being dispensed with altogether.

Yet another is that some matters in the legislation, such as bank accounts and loan expenditure, are also dealt with in the existing Financial Regulations.

Murray indicated that while the PNCR found many of the concepts and provisions in the legislation acceptable and that in general could support the legislation if the government would allow reasonable time for in-depth consideration of the issues.

Murray recalled that during the debate he was given an indication that the government was willing to refer the bill to a select committee but had concerns about the length of time the committee would take to deal with it.

In his letter to Kowlessar, a copy of which Stabroek News has seen, Murray says that despite "our best endeavours it has not been possible for us, within the time available, to have worked through all the implications and to be satisfied that the Bill is fully compatible with other legislation, constitutionally sound and adequately accommodative of the principles of sound financial management, transparency and accountability.

"Additionally there have been some new concepts introduced in the Bill, some of which may require clarification and others of which cause us serious concern. A good example of the latter is the creation of the concept of extra budgetary funds."

Murray said yesterday that the party's concerns had gone unheeded and it could not countenance the government's haste to rush it through all its stages.

The Bill seeks to provide a framework for modernising and better regulating the financial management practices of the government. It also addresses such matters as budget preparation, presentation and execution.

Part 10 of the Bill, which deals with accountability for fiscal management and performance, states that the minister shall present to the National Assembly a report on the year-to-date execution of the annual budget and the prospects for the remainder of that fiscal year within 60 days after the end of the first half-year of each fiscal year.

According to the Bill, that report should include an update of the current macro-economic and fiscal situation, a revised outlook for the remainder of the fiscal year and a statement of the projected impact that these trends are likely to have on the annual budget for the current fiscal year.

The mid-year report must also include a comparative report on the out-turned current and capital expenditure and revenues with the estimates originally approved by the National Assembly with explanations for any significant variances.

A list of major fiscal risks for the remainder of the fiscal year, together with the likely policy responses that the government proposes to take to meet the expected circumstances.

Section 59 of the Bill states: "Insofar as the incurring of a public debt impacts on monetary policy, the minister shall exercise his power to borrow in consultation with the Bank of Guyana."

The Bill states too that the minister shall have the authority to execute any document, agreement or instrument that renders the government liable for a debt or evidence of that indebtedness.

The Bill outlines too that the minister will be responsible for the administration of all domestic and external debt.

Murray's amendment to the Bill inserts a clause proposing "harsh punishments for officers and ministers of the government who misappropriate public funds and public property, recommending fines of $2M and jail time of three years."

Section 64 of the Bill states that the government may lend public monies to any public entity or to any individual who is a citizen of Guyana.

As regards the budget, Section 12 states the minister shall, no later than 180 days prior to the commencement of each fiscal year, establish a timetable for the preparation of the annual budget proposal pertaining to the next ensuing fiscal year.

Within that period too, the minister shall prepare and distribute a budget circular to all budget agencies with the economic situation and the fiscal policy objectives and priorities of the government among other guidelines.