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Next budget faces unexpected hurdle

By Agather Atuhaire

2016 parliament election cycle tosses planning into the unknown

Who will pass Uganda’s next budget? That is the question on the lips of finance policy makers since unforeseen procedures related to the new budgeting cycle in an election year started emerging.  Under the old budgeting cycle, the minister of Finance would announce the budget in June and parliament was expected to pass the budget in September, at least four months after new MPs are sworn-in.

Under the new budgeting cycle, however, the national budget for Financial Year 2016/17 should be approved by parliament in May 2016. But that is the same month in which the new parliament will be sworn-in.

If past attrition rates of 60% persist, up to about 338 of the new expanded 480-strong parliament are likely to be new.

Now the big questions; how would you like the national budget to be passed by a parliament of amateurs who will still be struggling to find their way around Parliament? Alternatively, do you think a good national budget can be passed by a parliament where a majority (230 out of 385) have just lost an election?

Peter Magelah Gwayaka, a researcher at Action Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) says allowing the likelihood of either situation must have been an oversight on the part of the framers of the new budget cycle law who might have forgotten to put elections into consideration.  “I don’t think the law will be followed,” he says, “I don’t see this parliament handling any business after December.”

There are already signs that Gwayaka is right.

On July 22, the 2nd Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of Government Business, Moses Ali, presented the legislative program for the year 2015/2016 to Parliament. The program outlines items that Parliament has to handle in the financial year 2015/16 during its last session.

The list has 26 Bills, two regulations, three motions, and 2 policies. Of the 26 Bills, Parliament had by end of August handled only three Bills and one motion.

Yet some of the bills on the list have to be in place by February next year before elections are held. Some of these Bills include those for the amendment of electoral laws; the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill, the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill and the Electoral Commission (Amendment) Bill.

And the clock is ticking.

The current parliament has only eight months to its expiry in May 2016. But in real practical terms, it has less than four working months to do any work. This is mainly because of the forthcoming elections.

As September starts, parliament is in a recess that could last two months since the MPs are busy canvassing support in their political party primaries. That process is expected to be concluded in October. It is already tough getting them to attend to even the most urgent business of the House.

The Clerk to Parliament, Jane Kabirige, witnessed this first hand on Aug.24 when she sent out a communication recalling the members back from recess to handle “urgent business” from Sept.01-03. Many MPs expressed their discontent. They said they cannot keep in parliament handling Parliamentary business when their opponents are busy campaigning to unseat them.

In fact, Kibirige’s deputy, Paul Wabwire attempted to withdraw the communication on Aug. 26 only for him to resend it a day later saying that the business to be handled was “important and urgent.”

The urgent business includes the motion to create 25 new districts, the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill, the loan requests to authorise government to borrow and the Supplementary schedules, 1, 2, and 3.

Based on such recent difficulty in raising quorum, it remains to be seen if Parliament will raise enough members to consider this business.

MPs complain

Yet, it is this Parliament that has to consider and approve the 2016/2017 budget. Changes brought about by the new Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) now require Parliament to approve the budget by May 31, before the minister reads it in June.  According to the new law, the Minister is required to submit the Budget Framework Paper to Parliament by December 31 and Parliament to review and approve it (Budget Framework Paper) by February 01.

The Minister then presents the proposed annual budget to Parliament by  April 01 and Parliament, by May 31, is supposed to consider and approve the annual national budget. But there is growing skepticism that the MPs who started complaining about being denied time to campaign as early as February will come anywhere near Parliament in December or January to carry out these tasks.  Even after the elections, observers say, it will be difficult to have MPs, most of whom it is expected will have lost elections, to attend to parliament business.

A member of parliamentary staff in parliament told The Independent that it will be hard to get the members to consider any serious business before elections. He says that normally in the year preceding elections, serious business ends in August or September and resumes in May with the new Parliament.

The MPs have proposed that their term be increased to seven years so that the first year is used for familiarising themselves with Parliament’s business and the last one for campaigning to retain their precious seats.  The member of staff said that there is nothing that is more important than the coming party primaries for the members right now. “You may say that they will come back and consider the budget after elections since their term officially ends in May,” he continues, “but it will still be tricky because the members who will have lost won’t have the motivation to work.”

Even the most optimistic commentators on the issue, like Robinson Kawesa, the Principle Private Secretary to Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah, do not see an easy way out. Constitutionally, the Ninth Parliament will expire in May 2016, Kawesa told The Independent, that means they will have the time to come back after the elections and consider and approve the budget.

“But it will not be easy to have members, even the losers in the election, attending committees to consider Ministerial Policy statements or to have quorum in Parliament to pass the Budget,” he said.

Some commentators are offering solutions.

Museveni steps in

Gwayaka of ACODE says the gap in planning might see President Yoweri Museveni use discretion to approve a preliminary Budget that the government will run on until the entire budget is approved, most likely by the new next Parliament.

While Fred Muhumuza, a faculty member of the research and policy department of the Financial Sector Deepening Uganda project, says it might require swearing in the new Parliament earlier than May to have them consider the budget.

This, he says, however will mean having the budget discussed by amateurs who will still be struggling to find their way around Parliament.

But Tim Lwanga, a former chairman of the Parliamentary Budget Committee says elections and the change of the budget cycle will not affect the budget process significantly.  Lwanga says MPs have little in put in Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and that by the time their input is required, elections will long be over.

“Elections will be held in early February,” he says “we will have February, March and April to consider and conclude the budget,” he says. According to him, the MPs know what their duty is and they will be there to fulfill it. The Budget Framework Paper (BFP) is a five year budget plan, which indicates budgetary estimates and what government intends to spend on what in the next five years. At the climax of the budgeting process, the minister of Finance first presents it to Parliament – in December under the new cycle. Then it is sent to the Budget Committee of Parliament. Based on its discretion and based on expertise required, the Budget Committee of Parliament and the Parliamentary Budget Office, push parts of the BFP to relevant sectoral committees for review. After deliberations, the committees draft reports and present the reports to the parliamentary plenary for discussion and approval of the BFP. The Speaker submits it the President as the holder of the national budgeting function.

After the approval of the BFP, the minister of Finance returns to parliament with the budget estimates for the following financial year. The process is repeated as with the BFP. The sectoral committees review the Ministerial Policy Statements of the various Ministries, Departments and Agencies. The Ministerial Policy Statements entail the planned expenditure of the different MDAs.

The committee reports are then presented to the House for debate before the budget is approved. Under the old system, the budgeting process required a minimum of six months of full-time work by parliament.

The current chairman of the Budget Committee, Amos Lugolobi is optimistic. He says since elections will be held in February, Parliament will reconvene after and handle the business that it is supposed to handle.

But he too admits there are concerns of availability saying that members who will have lost their seats might think they are not obliged to do Parliamentary work.

“That will be up to them but they should be available because their term ends in May,” says Lugolobi

But Director Budget in the ministry of Finance Kenneth Mugambe does not seem to have any worries. He also says there is no vacuum at all because there will not be any point when there will not be a Parliament.

“We discussed the issue with Parliament and we are sure there’s no gap,” he told The Independent, “You have to look at Parliament as an institution not as individuals.”

He added: “It’s like saying that the President will be on campaign trail so the country will have no President.”

Mugambe says this is an even better arrangement unlike in the previous law where it would be the new parliament handling the budget when it was the old Parliament that considered and approved the Budget Framework Paper (BFP).

He says all that is required is for the different parties to mobilise their members to do the work they are expected to do. Mugambe’s optimism could be a result of Ministry of Finance bureaucrats who see parliament oversight in the budget process as unnecessary meddling.

But Gwayaka says what Mugambe describes is the desirable ideal. He thinks it will not be practical to have the MPs in parliament after elections to consider the budget before the 10th Parliament starts in May. Muhumuza also says the reality is not that re-assuring as Mugambe imagines it.

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