|National Assembly Building|
In an apparent response to the shock decision by a National Assembly that appeared to be responding to popular opposition to the D 1.2 billion Supplementary Appropriations, the Minister of Finance appealed to the parliamentary body for reconsideration of the vote that fell on deaf ears.
The voices of frustration echoed around the National Assembly, from one member of parliament to the next, with historical references to the habitual and unsustainable budget deficits that received automatic endorsements from all quarters. Members of the National Assembly decided to stand firm in their decision to hold down public spending to manageable levels.
The Supplementary Appropriation Bill before the National Assembly was for a D1.2 billion spending authorization with less than three weeks before the end of the fiscal year on December 31 "of which an additional D 60 million is for the State House", according to Mr. Sal Taal, an Initiator of the civil society group named #GambiaHasDecided. The Finance Minister's rationale for the request was considered cosmetic as the emphasis on the desirability of cleaning up the deficit mess that he inherited from his predecessors was largely ignored by the National Assembly.
The Minister of Finance was also unable to convince the National Assembly that government was committed to fiscal prudence when additional resources was being demanded from the public treasury. In fact, an Assembly Member reminded the Minister and colleagues that during the 2017 Fiscal year, the newly sworn parliamentarians were able to revise the fait accompli budget that was passed by the outgoing National Assembly resulting in a deficit reduction from D 4.7 billion to D 921 million. It is evident that the National Assembly is determined to maintain the same trajectory moving into the next fiscal year and beyond.
The decision to deny the request - the first time, ever - places both the government and the National Assembly on uncharted territory. It therefore requires some thought in moving forward to avoid making matters worse. There appears to be a sequencing problem already. Because the Budget Speech scheduled for tomorrow (Friday), there is no time for the government representatives and the National Assemble to huddle around the problem to decide what the next steps should be - a necessary and important intermediary step.
The National Assembly's decision is a genuine attempt to break away from a pattern of deficit financing that is deemed unconstitutional because the amount requested is approximately 6% of the initial budget figure which exceeds the 1% prescribed by law.
The problem posed by the D1.2 billion that has already been spent or committed to the end of the fiscal year on December 31st, 2018 and for which there is no parliamentary authorization and thus constitute an illegal/unconstitutional expenditure. This is a legal matter that requires the attention of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice.
One obvious and highly desirable option that addresses the D 1.2 billion budget deficit is for the Ministry of Finance to quote savings of similar amount from the 2018 Approved Budget. We have suggested in a Facebook post that candidates for further pruning include but not limited to the Office of the President (including Office of the First Lady), Ministry of Defense, Meet the People's Tour, presidential and other official travels and so on. The challenge posed by this option is to save D 1.2 billion and still be within budget i.e. with no supplementary budget request for the entire fiscal year 2019.
The decision of the National Assembly to deny approval of the Supplementary Appropriation Bill has effectively imposed an involuntarily austerity program for a government that has displayed reluctance to change a system inherited from Jammeh's 22-year dictatorship.