Spotlight on the National Assembly 2017 budget
The legislators have passed the 2017 Appropriation Bill but not before jerking up the spending limit for the National Assembly from N115billion submitted by the Executive arm of government to N125billion. The two Chambers had in fact increased the projected aggregate expenditure by about N143billion having adjusted upwards by $2 per barrel the crude oil price benchmark. While it is easy to appreciate the increased allocation to the Niger Delta Amnesty programme and the provisions made for some critical capital projects such as the Abuja Airport runway, the Itakpe-Warri rail line as well as the need to cater for arrears of Corps members’ allowances, not a few Nigerians are struggling to understand the rationale behind the N10 billion added to the budget of the National Assembly.
Admittedly, the current National Assembly deserves commendation for making public its projected expenditure as budget openness and transparency demand. Too often over the years, the Legislative arm of government had failed to meet this standard, operating instead, in a closed-door culture of secrecy that left many Nigerians sceptical about the way public funds are spent in the conduct of the business of lawmaking.
This time around, the expenditure projections for the National Assembly provide some insight into the major priority spending areas during the 2017 financial year. In aggregate, the National Assembly plans to spend N125billion with Recurrent expenditure amounting to N109.5billion (comprising overheads of N85.8billion and personnel costs of N23.7billion) while capital spending takes up N14.9billion or about 12 per cent of the total budget. However, some clarity is still required in understanding the justification for certain expenditure items that appear to fail the test of Economy and Maximum Social Benefit- basic canons of public expenditure- especially at a time of economic recession, high rate of unemployment and widespread poverty.
The breakdown of the budget, which understandably has come under public scrutiny, shows that the two chambers plan to purchase new vehicles for committees, presiding and principal officers at the cost of N6.6billion. Now, does this mean that the officers involved do not have official vehicles nearly two years into the life of the current National Assembly? This would not have been much of a concern if the vehicles were to be manufactured in Nigeria. Unfortunately, scarce foreign currency would be involved to bring this about thereby aggravating the liquidity challenge in the foreign exchange market. This sort of expenditure should be deferred till significant traction is noticed in the economy.
At a time that calls for austere measures on the part of all those in public office, Distinguished Senators and Honourable members of the House of Representatives plan to spend N11.5billion on international and local travels. The truth is that this figure can come down considerably if subjected to the canon of Economy. With regard to training for instance, Lawmakers can cut down on the cost of foreign training by flying in the Facilitators where the required competencies cannot be found in Nigeria instead of travelling overseas.
There is also Consultancy and Professional Services which is expected to gulp a whopping N5.88billion. These services are usually legal, financial or ICT related. Huge savings can actually be made here if the non-partisan National Assembly Budget and Research Office (NABRO) is repositioned to provide some of these services with support from the National Institute for Legislative Studies (NILS) which was set up, by the way, to strengthen the capacities of legislators and ensure that the positions and proposals advanced by them are informed by requisite research and analytical support. Other planned expenditure that require pruning down include the N1.3billion voted for refreshment, N3billion for publicity and advertisements and N2.1billion for fuel and lubricants.
Just how does the National Assembly justify the over N2billion voted for ‘contingency’ (Senate, N1.305billion; House, N890.8million)? In other climes, the size of emergency fund represents about 1 per cent of what was budgeted in the preceding year. The 2016 National Assembly Budget amounted to N115billion. So, 1 per cent of this sum would have been in the region of N1.15billion not minding inflation and naira depreciation. Fact is: an excessive contingency provision tends to put accountability to serious test.
To be sure, Lawmakers deserve some comfort and this has been well taken care of in the remuneration package of political, public and judicial office holders by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC). The impression the National Assembly disproportionate overhead budget conveys is that in spite of their huge pay packets and allowances, the Legislators are insensitive to the current economic mood which leaves them exposed to the claim in some quarters that they are much concerned about their welfare and care little about the welfare of the people they represent.
The principle of Economy in public expenditure abhors any form of waste while the canon of maximum social benefit requires that government expenditure should be incurred in such a manner that the society as a whole derives benefit from it. If a particular group receives benefit of public spending at the expense of the society as a whole, then that expenditure cannot be justified because it does not result in the greatest good to the public in general. Spending that is geared towards the greater good is even in the interest of Lawmakers as it ultimately reduces the financial pressure they face whenever they return to their constituencies.
In order to secure maximum social benefit therefore, the N10 billion added to the National Assembly Budget should be moved to the capital budget for Agriculture in pursuit of government’s food security objective enshrined in the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan. The judgment here is less about the quantum of the increase but more about the Lawmakers’ recognition that where public funds are involved, every single kobo must comply with the canon of maximum social benefit. To ensure economy in public expenditure, the leadership of the two chambers should establish a strong Efficiency Unit that would help to curtail waste and free up fiscal resources for other government priorities.
That said, the National Assembly could push the transparency efforts even further, in the years ahead, by making public details of its budget before the passage of the Appropriation Bill and not after – when the deed had been done.
Uwaleke, a chartered banker, stockbroker and Fellow of ICAN, is an Associate Professor of Finance and Head of Banking & Finance Department at Nasarawa State University Keffi