2013 budget: Is there a fiscal cliff at hand?

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BY EMMANUEL AZIKEN, POLITICAL EDITOR

It was considered one of the more remarkable points in the relationship between the executive and legislative arms of the Federal Government when at the end of last year that the National Assembly passed the 2013 budget proposals. Now all the gains are about to unravel.

It was the first time in the life of the fourth republic that the budget of the Federal Government had been prepared before the commencement of the fiscal year. But now what was considered a spectacular landmark only few weeks ago is about turning out to be an anti-climax.

Both President Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly it has emerged are weighing their options following a blunt refusal by the legislators to reconsider objections raised by the president on some specific issues in the budget as passed by the National Assembly.

President Jonathan had during a meeting with the National Assembly leadership on January 25 in the presidential villa raised his concerns on the budget and some clauses planted into the budget document approved by the National Assembly.

At the end of the meeting and reflecting the difficulties raised at the closed door session, the president of the senate, Senator David Mark had parried questions raised to him by anxious newsmen that accosted him.

President Jonathan; Senate President, David Mark and Speaker, House of Reps, Hon Aminu Tambuwal

President Jonathan; Senate President, David Mark and Speaker, House of Reps, Hon Aminu Tambuwal

While the president was reported not to have directly questioned the decision of the National Assembly to raise the budget from N4.92 trillion as proposed by him to N4.98 trillion, the president had at the meeting raised his concern over some projects he said were not well funded and others which received superior funding to what was desired by the administration.

He was also reported to have seriously expressed his discomfort on the clause in the budget barring the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC from funding its activities with Oteh as director-general and the decision to raise the benchmark for oil revenue from $75 to $79 per barrel.

The legislators were said to have listened favourably to the president and promised to get back to him on the issues of the funding details. They were, however, firm on not reconsidering the issue of Oteh and the benchmark.

Ms Oteh, in particular has suddenly become a burden for the administration. Arguably one of the shining intellectual lights of the administration, the director-general’s seeming bad politics has rubbed off negatively on other political stakeholders.

While the House of Representatives has been largely criticized for shielding its own deviants, the administration has also come in for questioning for shielding Oteh who was found by the House to lack the necessary qualifications for the position of director-general. The House resolution asking the presidency to sack Ms Oteh was ignored.

“When he mentioned the issues of the funding and all that, the legislators promised that they would see what they could do, but on the benchmark and Oteh, the president met a brick wall as mum was the word from all the legislators present,” multiple sources familiar with the development told Vanguard at the weekend.

The National Assembly had in passing the 2013 budget barred SEC from utilising its funds with Oteh as DG. The action of the National Assembly followed the report of the House of Representatives committee on capital markets which affirmed that Oteh did not have the minimum requirements to hold the position of DG.

Oteh had on her part before the submission of the report levelled allegations of corruption against the leadership of the house committee on capital market. Mr. Herman Hembe, the erstwhile chairman of the committee and his former deputy, Ifeanyi Azubogu are presently standing trial for allegedly collecting estacode from SEC for travels that they didn’t go on.

While the leadership at the meeting with the president immediately refused his entreaty to revisit the matter of Oteh and the benchmark, they had, however, promised to pass on his message for a revision of some portion of the funding provisions of the budget.

On returning the leadership of the two houses had passed on the president’s message to the legislators it was learnt as at last weekend were unyielding.

The legislators, Vanguard learnt at the weekend, are claiming that any alteration to the budget would amount to an amendment which they said should go through due process.

“Under what law can the budget be revisited after it has been passed and transmitted to the president?” one legislator familiar with the development asked at the weekend.

While some were hopeful that a way would be found around the issues, many are, however, not waiting for such.

A number of the legislators it was learnt have commenced moves to mobilise their colleagues to override the president if by February 17 the president does not give his assent to the budget.

The budget was transmitted to the president on January 17 and he has a latitude of 30 days to give his assent to the budget bill or turn it back raising his objections or keep mum which in effect would amount to a veto.

Close observers of the latest development were especially downcast flowing from what they claimed was the hard work put in by senior presidential aides and the legislators to pass the budget before the end of the last financial year.

Arising from the discontent, a clamour to overturn the president’s objections to the budget is springing up among the legislators. The clamour, would, however, have to wait till February 17 to get a life of its own because the law says that the President should be given 30 days before the National Assembly can revisit the issue.  The    budget was transmitted to the president on January 17.

Section 59 (4) making provisions for an override of a presidential veto states thus:
Where the President, within thirty days after the presentation of the bill to him, fails to signify his assent or where he withholds assent, then the bill shall again be presented to the National Assembly sitting at a joint meeting, and if passed by two-thirds majority of members of both houses at such joint meeting, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required.

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