Liberia: 14 Lawmakers Get Vigilant Over 2019/2020 Budget

-Want Speaker Chambers to lead in cutting budget by 40%

In a rather rare but bold move, members of the Independent Legislative Caucus (ILC), comprising of 14 like-minded members of the House of Representatives, have promised to expose any of their colleagues in the legislature that will manipulate and or commit deceptions in the 2019/2020 budget, as their way of stopping the hemorrhage of state funds that are being diverted into private pockets.

According to sources, the aggrieved lawmakers' fight against "budget dishonesty and treachery" is prompted by what they claim were manipulations of the 2018/2019 budget, in which US$1.2 million allotted to some public health institutions in the approved draft National Budget were diverted to some private health centers and clinics in the printed version of the National Budget.

On October 15, 2018, some aggrieved members of the Ways, Means and Finance Committee wrote House Speaker Bhofal Chambers, expressing shock and regret about the manner and form in which the entire 2018/2019 budget process were conducted, beginning from the Ways, Means and Finance Committee room to the printing into handbills.

Now with 30 days left to submit the 2019/2020 budget to the House of Representatives for the scrutiny and its subsequent passage, the ILC Budget Committee said in a press statement, dated Sunday, May 12, 2019, "we vow to robustly and vigorously expose, checkmate all budgetary channels, tunnels, cesspool, and camouflage that is being carved by budget manipulators acting under the guise of being humanitarians."

Also in their press statement relating to the proposed bill to cut salaries of members of the House of Representatives, the ILC said they welcome the debate and remain undaunted in forging a realistic path to the National Budget process for the good of the Liberian people.

The ILC said it wishes to address the situation from an informed perspective as opposed to creating a pool of sentiments only to mislead the public with half-baked propositions. However, it wants to ensure that the government has adequate resources to address the developmental challenges of the State.

According to the ILC, "Article 36 of the Liberia Constitution of 1986 provides that the Legislature remuneration for services are fixed by law, but can be altered to take effect in the succeeding Fiscal Year. This suggests that because the appropriation authority is vested in the Legislature, such decision can only be taken by majority member votes," the ILC maintained.

"In the Fiscal Year 2018/2019 National Budget, the Legislature appropriated to herself US$49.2 million against US$49.3 million for FY-2017/2018. This Budget accounts for the following: Office of the Senate Pro-Tempore -- US$1.38 million; Office of the Speaker- US$1.22 million; Office of the Deputy Speaker- US$0.766 million; Senate Members (including Central Administration and Secretariats) - US$14.67 million and House Members (including personal staffers and Central Administration and Secretariats) -- US$31.18 million," the statement outlined.

The ILC said in the budget, the House Speaker, Senate Pro-Tempore and the Deputy Speaker, all other members of the Senate and the House of Representatives have no discretional authority over the execution of the Legislature's Budget. But in the same Budget, the Speaker receives the allotment of US$29,700 as special allowance per month, but is inclusive of his discretionary budget of US$1.22 million.

The ILC indicated that each member of the House of Representatives with no discretionary role in the Budget execution process receives as budgeted US$7,450 or US$5,500 net of taxes per month respectively.

"The House of Representatives appropriated to herself US$1.6 million for Operations and US$1.8 million for Committee Hearings at the discretion of the Speaker, amounting to US$3.4 million and if the argument is that the Government needs to take on austerity measures to address the developmental needs of the Country, then it makes sense to reduce the Operational and Committee Hearing Budgets of the House of Representatives by 75% so as to save about US$2.57 million and that the Speaker's Budget be reduced by 40% and be used as the standard for each member's budget calibration".

The ILC added: "These and other measures, when taken by the National Legislature, could save about US$9.0 million for the Government as opposed to a US$1.5 million saving as is being tokenized by our colleagues."

The ILC indicated: "While we welcome the debate, you will come to agree with us, that there has been no Budget performance review so as to assess the actual Fiscal Stance of the Government. More besides, the gain from the executive salary cut is yet to be accounted for and distinguished in terms of its impact in reducing the Government wage bill."

"It is unarguable that the budget lines other than wages and salaries that seek to impact the entire country at once are the Legislative Support Project and legislative Scholarship fund. As we speak, there is no significant discussion to increase the appropriations of the Legislative Support Project which was reduced from about US$78,000 to US$31,000 to accommodate Government budget constraints."

The ILC added, "Do we wish that we have a benefit cut that goes into a pool fund, with limited or no accountability, while the fat in our National Budget remain, or we cut all the fat, while a cut in our benefits be used to increase our District Scholarship and District Projects Budget that have far reaching impacts in the lives of our people."

The ILC statement furthered: "Because wages are rigid downward, as a Government, we need not be sentimental, but realistic in addressing the issues across the branches of Government. A country that has a huge level of unemployment and underemployment, is more of a national security risk as compared to having a huge security budget that have limited positive effect on the lives of the very people it seeks to impact."

"We see it befitting that the books of the Legislature be audited, including a vigorous payroll vetting and audit exercise that will set a benchmark for a transparent and accountable Legislature. This exercise will give the public a clearer understanding as to the actual remunerations of members of the Legislature and could help to prevent any possible waste and abuse in the National Budget. As the Executive is taking steps in these directions, the Liberian Legislature and the Judiciary should be of no exception," the press statement intoned.

Members of the ILC include Representatives Larry P. Younquoi, District #8 Nimba County; Rustonlyn S. Dennis, District #4, Montserrado County; Thomas A. Goshua, II, District #5 Grand Bassa County; Francis Saidy Dopoh, II, District #3 River Gee County and Yekeh Y. Kolubah, District 10 Montserrado County; and Ellen A. Attoh-Wreh, District #3 Margibi County.

Others are Representatives Hanson S. Kiazolu, District #17 Montserrado County; Vicent S.T. Willie, II, District #4 Grand Bassa County; Beyan D. Howard, District #5 Lofa County; Jay J. Nagbe Sloh, District #2 Sinoe County; Ivar K. Jones, District #2 Margibi County; Lawrence Morris, District #1 Montserrado County; George Beyan Samah, District #12 Montserrado County; and Ceebee Barshell, District #3 Montserrado County.

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