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Democratic norms of Budget making

Muhammad Abdul Mazid   | Published: May 19, 2019 21:28:51 | Updated: May 24, 2019 21:00:35


The will of the people should be reflected and respected in the budget making process, and budget allocation is the main area that needs to be addressed to respect that will. The voters must have an opportunity to express their will for the distribution of tax money. Voters, through the legislators in parliament should be able to decide how much tax will be imposed on them, where their tax money will be spent, and who will manage it.

In a democratic society, distribution of resources to public and private sectors is hardly determined by the desires of the legislators. Because it is such a complex and time-consuming task to acquire adequate political information, the legislator remains ignorant of the costs and benefits of many government policies. However, this ignorance causes governments to enact budgets smaller or bigger than the ones they would have enacted if the legislators had complete information. Hence these are extremely difficult to resolve. Furthermore, the resulting misallocation of resources becomes more and more serious as the economy grows more complex.

As citizens, the people have the right to know how their tax money is spent.  They need to understand why it is sometimes so hard to fund social programmes that benefit the community like quality education and affordable health services. Common people are not accountants. The budget document is hard to understand for the average citizens. If they can't understand it and no one explains it to them, how are they going to know if their money is being well spent? How are they going to hold their elected representatives accountable?

The Budget, apart from being an outline of strategic plan and roadmap for development and non-development fiscal measures, is a fundamental memorandum of understanding between the citizens and the government, and both are legally bound to each other for its proper implementation. The people are represented in parliament by their elected representatives, so the representatives are highly expected to have active participation in budget making, passing process and also in overseeing its implementation.

In countries like Bangladesh, budget making has always been an internal process, essentially a negotiation between the finance ministry and other ministries, with hardly any input from the citizens. Legislators themselves often express frustration over their little involvement in budget formulation. The intermittent   budget meetings (hearings) where representatives of business community, academia, think tanks, economists, parliament members can comment on the budget proposals, are a traditional practice, but their suggestions are seldom reflected in the finalisation. The public hearing (budget debate at parliament) comes at the end of the process, when only few changes can be made.

To fundamentally change the old way of doing business, there has to be great political reform and will, combined with widespread public support and participation. It is evident that political will rarely springs on its own, but grows from steady public pressure and accountability. It also grows from shared experiences between the public and private representatives who, working together towards common goals, build productive relationship and trust.

According to the legislative rules and procedure in Bangladesh, Supplimentary Budget will be cleared within a week after it is placed. Constitutionally, Bangladesh budget is a document that should be recommended by the President for placing before  parliament and finally it must have his assent. There is a specific provision in the constitution with regard to the placing of Supplimentary Budget and its passage as below: 

"91. If in respect of any financial year it is found -

(a) that the amount authorised to be expended for a particular service for the current financial year is insufficient or that a need has arisen for expenditure upon some new service not included in the annual financial statement for that year; or

(b) that any money has been spent on a service during a financial year in excess of the amount granted for that service for that year;

the President shall have power to authorise expenditure from the Consolidated Fund whether or not it is charged by or under the Constitution upon that Fund and shall cause to be laid before Parliament a supplementary financial statement setting out the estimated amount of the expenditure or, as the case may be, an excess financial statement setting out the amount of the excess, and the provisions of articles 87 to 90 shall (with the necessary adaptations) apply in relation to those statements as they apply in relation to the annual financial statement."

And in line with the quoted constitutional spirit, the Rules of Procedure of the Bangladesh Parliament has the following provisions: 

"123. Supplementary, excess and exceptional grants and votes of credit

Supplementary, excess and exceptional grants and votes of credit shall be regulated by the same procedure as is applicable in the case of demands for grants subject to such adaptations, whether by way of modification, addition or omission, as the Speaker may deem necessary or expedient.

124.Scope of discussion on supplementary grants

The debate on the supplementary grants shall be confined to the items constituting the same and no discussion may be raised on the original grants nor policies underlying them save in so far as it may be necessary to explain or illustrate the particular items under discussion."

Keeping this in view, the nation seldom sees any detailed discussion or debate on Supplementary Budget placed in parliament. It is cleared by the legislature mostly within a week of its placement. Bangladesh constitution has a clear provision that "No tax shall be levied or collected except by or under the authority of an Act of Parliament." So, parliament must endorse the revisions made in the tax policies during the current financial year other than those which were passed by parliament while adopting the Finance Bill of the previous year.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid is former Secretary to GoB and Chairman, NBR.

mazid1273@hotmail.com

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