By Jide Ajani
There are indications that the 2018 Budget recently presented by President Mohammadu Buhari may receive the required urgent attention of the National Assembly if feelers from some legislators are anything to go by.
A number of the senators and House members spoken to agreed that it would be in the interest of the economy for the budget to be passed speedily and to return the country’s fiscal appropriation package to a more predictable cycle.
Returning the national budget to a regular January to December cycle will not only allow government to make appropriations and have enough time for processing, implementation and monitoring, it will, more importantly, help the private sector align with government plans and aspirations and in the process speed up the growth of the economy.
Legislators on desirability of January-December Budget cycle
Aligning themselves with the desire to return the budget cycle to a more predictable regime, some of the members agreed that it will be in the interest of the national economy if the 2018 budget is given speedy consideration by that arm of government.
In separate interviews, some legislators agreed to air their views on condition of anonymity because, in their view, the fact that the legislature is yet to begin full debate on the budget would seem to make any discussion before the fact a bit presumptuous.
“Although it now looks as if it was the initiative of the Executive, we actually mooted the idea of returning to the normal budget cycle of January to December to allow for proper planning and execution of not just government policies and programmes but also those of the private sector”, one of the Senators said.
He said the irregular budget regime which government has been operating for sometime now has been hurting the economy and stifling the private sector which is the largest contributor to economic growth.
According to the legislator, while the Federal Government spending for a particular year may not be more than N8 trillion, the economy needs an average spending of more than a hundred trillion naira.
Government spending according to him – and this has been buttressed by economic experts – is, therefore, just about 8% of the amount needed to run the country’s economy. The difference, he said, is made up by the private sector.
He explained that the private sector looks up to government for direction of the national economy in terms of fiscal and monetary policies; and where these are haphazzard and unpredictable, then the private sector finds it difficult to invest and operate in an uncertain economic environment.
“This”, he insists, affects investments, both internal and external, and dampens investor confidence in the economy. For those of us who are interested in the economic growth and sustainable development of the country, it becomes imperative that we focus our attention on ensuring that the 2018 budget presented penultimate week by the President is passed by December this year or very early January next year. It is a duty we owe the people of this country as their representatives”, he added.
A number of the senators aligned with the thinking even though some of them are not happy that the 2017 budget, according to them, seem abandoned.
A Senator from the South West told Sunday Vanguard that “the impression is given that we are against returning to the regular budget cycle of January to December; but that is not true. What we are saying is that there is a subsisting budget which has not been substantially implemented; and you know that the Appropraition Act is law”.
Speaking in the same vein, another Senator said “we are not happy that the 2017 Budget is not substantially implemented. We would have loved to see that budget fully implemented but if returning to the normal budget cycle will cure the ills of the implementation challenge we have been perenially suffering, I think we will support it.”
One of the senators from the ruling APC was very optimistic, suggesting that the legislators will put aside whatever differences they have with the Executive and face the budget in the interest of the country.
“We are all Nigerians”, he said, “and the economy affects us just the same way it affects others; so we cannot say because of whatever issues we have with the executive we should hold the people we are representing to ransome. Don’t also forget that some of us own businesses too, so if the economy is sound it is also to our own benefit”.
Pointing to what they term a new approach to executive/legislative releationship, some of them agreed that there are indications that the frosty relationship between the two bodies which often affect transactions between them is thawing.
First steps in mutual confidence building
For the first time the President sat down at dinner with principal officers of the National Assembly to discuss issues relating to the budget before laying the fiscal document before the National Assembly.
In fact, Sunday Vanguard was made to understand by some legislators that that meeting served as a clincher which, no doubt, presented a win-win situation for both sides.
The new Secretary to Government also extended a hand of fellowship to the legislators and pledged a good working relationship. “These are things that never happened before, signally a new beginning; and we would do well to reciprocate these gestures,” one of them said.
Apparently not happy that the rollover of the 2017 budget into 2018 will affect their constituency projects, a member of the House of Representatives said “we are in a tight corner now. Next year real partisan politicking will begin and if we have nothing to show in our constituencies, it will be difficult to convince our people to vote for us; but again if the national economy is wobbly, we are in a bigger mess, so we have very little choice but to get the budget out as soon as possible, so that the overall interest of the country and the people is best served.”
While laying the 2018 Budget proposals before the National Assembly, President Muhammadu Buhari had stressed the need to return to a regular budget regime to enable all stakeholders in the economy to plan properly; he therefore appealed to the legislators to consider the budget expeditiously to achieve the desire.
Although the heads of the two chambers of the National Assembly appreciated the need for a return to a predictable budget regime, they, nonetheless, did not offer categorical commitments on the early consideration of the 2018 as desired by the executive.
Even as the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, appreciated the need for a good working relationship between the Executive and the Legislature, he pointed out that the speed at which results of engagement between the two arms of government would be resolved will largely depend on the quality of relationship that exits between them.
It was obvious from his remarks that he was not very excited about the termination of the 2017 budget in December 2017 as he wondered if that would not infringe on the law.
No matter. The meeting before the budget presentation served to calm frayed nerves.
However, a member of the House of Representatives said it was trite law that whenever a new law on a particular subject matter is passed, the former ceases to exist; pointing out that if the same legislature that made the law makes a new law to supercede the old one, the issue of infrigement would not arise.
National Assembly’s patriotic initiative
A Presidency source who did not want to be named confirmed that it was indeed a Committee of the Senate that recommended the return to a predictable budget cycle, to not just help the government in proper planning and execution of projects, but also give direction to the private sector which is the major driver of the economy.
“I was taken aback when the same legislators who suggested the issue turned around to be against it. We have always said that that is the best way to go; and when the legislators suggested it and actually made a recommendation in their report, we jumped at it and said this is the time to go for it. It is a good thing to do, especially now that our economy is recovering. I am optimistic that a good number of National Assembly members are in support of it and will cooperate to get it to speedy realization.”
Need for proper bookkeeping
According to him, apart from the huge benefit it has in terms of planning and adeqaute time to go through the procurement process and eventual execution, monitoring and evaluation, the January to December cycle also helps in proper book keeping.
Interestingly for some time now, the recurrent side of national budgets has been commencing from January while the Capital side has been commencing whenever the Appropraition Bill becomes law. That is why, for instance, people are saying that the 2017 capital release of N450 billion is low, they fail to consider that that particular budget became effective on une 12, 2017 and it has only been operated for barely five months by end of October.
Stakeholders in the private sector also believe that returning to a predictable budget cycle will help the economy grow faster as it will help big companies to plan their own operations in line with government fiscal policies and programmes.
Experts believe that investors can only have confidence in an economy that is predictable as no genuine investor would gamble with his resources in an unpredicatable environment.
The Budget is government’s economic and development compass, and government is the lead operator in the economic system, so a predictable budget cycle will do well for the economy and the growth and development of the country.
Those in manufacturing and commerce sectors applauded the relatively early submission of the budget by the Executive and hope that all hands will be on deck to achieve early passage so that they will take a cue from there to plot their own planning graphs for the year.
They applauded the priority given by government to infrastructure development and ease of doing business and noted that they are good signs for the business sector as these have been some of the most challenging factors in the business sector in this country.
Even by the comments of some of the members of the National Assembly, there appears to be a new commitment to the growth and development of the country by the legislators, since it appears they are set to put national interest above their own personal interests.
Conversely, the Executive is expected to also see the National Assembly as an integral part of government. The cooperation of the two arms of government is necessary for the smooth conduct of government business.
The Executive has shown some good faith on the budget. It is hoped that the National Assembly will play its part.