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$410m MPs fund a bad idea
The plan to give all 41 members of the House of Representatives $10 million each to spend on projects in their constituencies appears to be meant to fill in some loopholes and perhaps to answer the perennial complaint that Opposition constituencies are neglected by the central government. But it is fraught with pitfalls.
At a time when several state enterprises are beset with issues of governance, conflicts of interest and other ethical issues, the idea of presenting every MP with a $10 million budget seems to be a recipe for corruption on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
While Planning Minister Bhoe Tewarie told the post-Cabinet news conference on Thursday that accountability and transparency were major features of the Government’s thinking for the Constituency Development Fund, he was vague on the specific oversight systems that the Government plans to introduce to prevent self-dealing and kickbacks.
There is as yet no evidence, for example, that this fund would be governed by strict procurement procedures with careful adherence to ensuring that bids are evaluated by non-partisan officials who use objective criteria as the basis of selecting preferred candidates. But there are other, practical objections too. The majority of MPs have no expertise in paving roads or building drains.
How are they to judge what is a quick fix and what is a major undertaking? How are they to decide what the priorities should be in spending the allocation? Running a ministry is a full-time job. Can ministers hire agents to carry out these projects on their behalf? Do they need to be qualified? These projects are also likely to overlap or clash with local-government responsibilities or those of the Works Ministry, WASA or numerous other government agencies.
Given the history of ghost gangs and make-work projects, it is also quite likely that the cost of administration may reduce the allocation to little more than a token sum as MPs seek to curry favour with their constituents by putting as many of them on the payroll as possible. The plan will also add another layer of bureaucracy and confusion to public works, and the cost may well outweigh the benefits.
But another fundamental issue is whether the Government should be committing T&T’s fragile economy to new, unsustainable expenditure of limited usefulness in an international context that is typified by the volatility and unpredictability of T&T’s main petrochemical exports.
Production of oil, natural gas and petrochemicals is not likely to reach the halcyon levels of four years ago in the 2013 fiscal year, because of major maintenance work being undertaken by one of the major oil and gas producers and the likelihood that the country’s energy reserves are in secular decline.
The decision by the Cabinet to approve these ex-gratia payments to the 41 MPs, along with the Prime Minister’s earlier decision to create four brand-new ministries, signals a ramping-up of expenditure and a level of profligacy that is completely out of line with the fiscal realities that T&T is likely to face in 2013.
If there is need for additional funding to go to develop constituencies, it would have been better to divide the $410 million among the regional corporations, which have the experience, the resources and the systems of checks and balances in place to attend to local needs.
The $410 million Constituency Development Fund is a bad idea, comes at the wrong time and at a price the country can ill afford and will lead to entirely predictable negative consequences. These may be reasons the idea was discussed by three previous administrations but never implemented.
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