MPs quiz finance minister about revenue raising measures

MPs on the budget review committee quizzed Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad yesterday about revenue raising measures proposed within the record MVR24.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) state budget for 2015.

Briefing the committee yesterday (November 10), Jihad explained that MVR3.4 billion (US$220 million) in additional revenue is anticipated from raising import duty rates from July onward and introducing a ‘green tax’ for tourists.

Additionally, acquisition fees from investments to special economic zones (SEZs), income from the home ownership programme, and leasing 10 islands for resort development would help raise the forecast revenue.

The minister also told the committee that domestic debt had reached about MVR20 billion (US$1.2 billion)- 39 percent of GDP -making the rolling over of T-bills “a nightmare”.

The government was considering increasing custom duties “mostly for luxury items, or items that are harmful to the environment or health,” he said.

The cabinet’s economic council has not yet finalised the import duty or tariff revisions, Jihad noted, though he did reveal that the items under consideration include tobacco, perfume, and vehicles.

Tariffs for tobacco would be raised from the current 150 percent to 300 percent while duty would be raised from 100 to 150 percent for cars, and zero to 10 percent for perfume, Jihad said.

Asked if higher custom duties would lead to higher prices, Jihad said the impact on the inflation rate would have to be studied, which would take time to complete.

Jihad stressed that the government has ceased deficit monetisation – borrowing money from the central bank to finance the deficit – in May, as a result of which the inflation rate was reduced to 1.4 percent.

In April, parliament approved import duty hikes for a range of goods proposed by the government as a revenue raising measure.

Meanwhile, the forecast for income from SEZ acquisition fees is US$100 million, Jihad revealed, which is expected by August 2015.

A further MVR400 million (US$25.9 million) is forecast from leasing and sale of land from across the country, Jihad said – in particular, plots from unused reclaimed land in various islands.

The state-owned land designated for leasing or sale falls under three categories, he explained, which were residential, commercial, and industrial.

Moreover, 10 new islands would be leased next year for resort development, he continued, which would generate income for the government in the form of acquisition costs.

As an incentive or relief for new resorts with development stalled due to financial constraints, Jihad said the government would waive import duties for construction material or capital goods next year.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb revealed yesterday that a green tax of US$6 per night would be introduced in November 2015 and guest houses would be exempt from the tax.

Jihad said the income from the green tax would be used for water, sewerage, and coastal protection projects.

Of the proposed revenue raising measures, import duty revisions and introduction of a green tax would be subject to parliamentary approval, which the finance minister hoped would be granted as the budget was passed.

Legislative compromises to new revenue measures led Jihad to express fears in August that the predicted state deficit for 2014 would more than double in 2014.

State debt

The outstanding stock of treasury bills (T-bills) is currently MVR10 billion (US$648.5 million), said the finance minister.

In his budget speech last week, Jihad observed that the state’s debt would reach MVR31 billion (US$2 billion) or 67 percent of GDP by the end of 2014.

Expenditure on state employees in 2014 would reach MVR15.8 billion (US$1 billion), Jihad observed, while MVR3.2 billion (US$207 million) would have been spent on subsidies and social security benefits.

Consequently, the government was facing serious difficulties in “managing the state’s cash flow and financing the budget” as well as securing loans for budget support, Jihad said.

According to the central bank, the total outstanding stock of government securities was MVR13.6 billion (US$881 million) at the end of September.

Spiralling debt is threatening “the economy’s health”, Jihad said yesterday, with the rolling over T-bills proving to be difficult as the ministry has to plead with banks for extension of repayment periods.

“For example, if MVR600 million matures this week and there is MVR700 million in the public bank account, if the MVR600 million is rolled over there’ll be MVR100 million. How can we run the state with that? It can’t be done,” he explained.

The solution was raising additional revenue by utilising resources such as uninhabited islands, he continued, and appealed for cooperation from parliament. Additionally, the government was trying to extend the periods for repayment of debt.

The interest rate for T-bills is currently 7.5 percent, Jihad said, down from 10 percent before the current administration took office.

“This year we estimate that MVR1.2 billion worth of T-bills have been used by the state for finances. In 2015, it will be MVR440 million,” he noted.

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MP Nihan elected chair of budget review committee

Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Ahmed Nihan has been elected chair of parliament’s budget review committee at the first meeting of the committee today.

Coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) MP Ali Mauroof was meanwhile elected deputy chair.

The 24-member budget review committee is comprised of the economic affairs committee and public accounts committee.

While Nihan – PPM parliamentary group leader and majority leader – was elected with 21 votes in favour, Mauroof was elected with 15 votes.

The committee has 13 MPs from the ruling PPM-MDA coalition, seven opposition Maldivian Democratic Party MPs, and four Jumhooree Party MPs.

At its first meeting today, the committee decided to complete its review of the record MVR24.3 billion annual state budget presented at yesterday’s sitting by Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad by December 1.

Article 96(b) of the Constitution states, “The People’s Majlis may approve or amend the budget submitted by the Minister of Finance as in its discretion it deems fit.”

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Gasim elected chair of Budget Review Committee

Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader and MP for Maamigili, Gasim Ibrahim, has been elected chair of the parliament’s Budget Review Committee for the fourth consecutive year.

The 22-member committee comprises of the combined Finance Committee and Economic Affairs Committee.

The business tycoon and former JP presidential candidate was chosen with 12 votes in favour. Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party MP Dr Abdulla Mausoom was elected deputy chair with the same number of votes.

The committee is tasked with reviewing the budget and presenting a report to the People’s Majlis floor by December 1.

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PPM manifesto released to criticism over economic plans

President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s running mate Ahmed Thasmeen Ali has said the Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) “concerning” proposal to slash the state budget by MVR 4 billion ($259.9 million) lacks critical detail.

PPM released its three-part manifesto on Tuesday (September 3) – just four days before the presidential election.

Cautioning that such a large reduction required careful adjustments, Thasmeen said that the proposed cut would have a negative impact on development projects and subsidies, reported Haveeru.

Thasmeen added that minimizing waste and promoting operational efficiency in the government would not yield sufficient funds.

His critique echoed concerns voiced by other MPs, including PPM presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen, over last year’s budget cutbacks.

Yameen has promoted himself as being strong on economic policy, with posters across Male’ touting him as the electorate’s best choice for an economic recovery.

Budget cutbacks attracted sharp responses from political parties in December 2012, after Parliament’s Budgetary Review Committee reduced the state budget by MVR2.4 million ($1.5 million).

Government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy Leader and MP Abdullah Mausoom tweeted at the time that the cutbacks were “a deliberate attempt by MDP and PPM to ‘choke’ government and institutions by 2013”.

Yameen – then PPM’s Parliamentary Group Leader and a member of the review committee – observed that, based on the proposed budget cuts, the government’s policies were unclear.

Minivan News was unable to obtain comments from PPM spokespersons at time of press.

PPM Manifesto

The PPM’s ambitious proposals target legislation, administration and infrastructure in multiple areas. The party’s plans include a youth, a sports, and a ‘Yageen’ manifesto – the latter derived from the party’s campaign slogan ‘Yameen Yageen’, or ‘Yameen for Sure’.

The ‘Yageen’  manifesto outlines programmes targeting health, fisheries, decentralization, women’s rights, national security, agriculture, transport and tourism.

According the sports manifesto, athletic programs would receive new facilities and equipment, complemented by legislation to develop young talent. Sports administration would be facilitated by a Sports Act and a Maldives Sports PLC in partnership with all national sports associations, which would draft agreements to pay professional players.

The manifesto also states that all islands would receive a sports arena and Hulhumale’ would be developed as a youth entertainment city, including a National Aquatic Centre of olympic scale. Taxes on sports materials would be reduced from 25 to 5 percent.

According to the ‘Yageen’ manifesto, policies on education would expand teaching of the Quran and arabic language throughout the curriculum, and offer both expanded vocational and higher education opportunities. Educational centers would benefit from teacher training, expanded space, improved counseling services, and “modern libraries” equipped with digital facilities.

On the subject of women’s rights, the manifesto proposes subsidized childcare system, allowing women to work from home through the internet, and connecting them to employers. Gender quotas in the political arena and leadership skills courses for girls are also included, intended to equalize the workplace gender balance.

Other proposals include reviewing national legislation on women, particularly in the areas of marriage and divorce, property, and crime.

To build connectivity within and between atolls, the PPM “ensures” that every island will have access to air transport through regional airports, to be complemented by a ferry network. The party states that, in addition to expanding the services of Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) and Island Aviation, it will invite private companies to operate transport facilities.

The manifesto did not detail budgetary provisions for these proposals.

Download the manifestos in Dhivehi.

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Population consolidation, rightsizing public sector essential to address budget deficit: Auditor General

A policy of population consolidation together with effective measures to reduce the public sector wage bill is necessary to address continuing budget deficits, the Auditor General has advised parliament.

The recommendations were made in a report (Dhivehi) submitted to parliament with the Auditor General’s professional opinion on the proposed state budget for 2013.

Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim observed that of the estimated MVR 12 billion (US$778 million) of recurrent expenditure, MVR 7 billion (US$453.9 million) would be spent on employees, including MVR 743 million (US$48 million) as pension payments.

Consequently, 59 percent of recurrent expenditure and 42 percent of the total budget would be spent on state employees.

“We note that the yearly increase in employees hired for state posts and jobs has been at a worrying level and that sound measures are needed,” the report stated. “It is unlikely that the budget deficit issue could be resolved without making big changes to the number of state employees as well as salaries and allowances to control state expenditure.”

The report noted that the bill on state wage policy recently passed by parliament would not address the issue as the legislation focused “mainly on reviewing salaries of state institutions.”

The Auditor General’s Office contended that “major changes” were needed to right-size the public sector and “control the salary of state employees and expenditure related to employees.”

The report observed that compared to 2012, the number of state employees is set to increase from 32,868 to 40,333 – resulting in MVR 1.3 billion (US$84.3 million) of additional expenditure in 2013.

This anticipated increase included 864 new staff to be hired by the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), the report noted.

In light of “existing inefficiencies” in the state, the Auditor General contended that hiring more staff for various independent institutions would be “a waste of public funds” as it would divert resources from service provision and development projects.

“Moreover, we note that increasing the number of employees would lead to an increase in office expenses and expenditure on employees’ retirement and pensions, decrease the number of people left to do productive work in the private sector (decrease the labour force), and slow the growth of the country’s economy,” the report stated.

Details of the state’s wage bill included in the report showed that MVR 187 million (US$12 million) was budgeted as salaries and allowances for 545 political appointees in 2012.

In addition, MVR 1.98 billion (US$128.4 million) was to be spent on 18,538 civil servants; MVR 999 million (US$64.7 million) on 6,244 police and army officers; MVR 362 million (US$23.4 million) on 1,455 elected representatives and attendant staff; MVR 485 million (US$31.4 million) on 3,372 employees of independent institutions; and MVR 345 million (US$22.3 million) on 2,714 contract staff.

In 2011, the Finance Ministry revealed that MVR 99 million (US$6.4 million) would be spent on 244 political appointees annually as salaries and allowances.

According to the weekly financial statement released by the Finance Ministry, recurrent expenditure as of December 20, 2012 has reached MVR 8.9 billion (US$577 million). Roughly half was spent on employees.

Fiscal imbalance

A report by the World Bank in May 2010 identified the dramatic growth of the public sector wage bill as the origin of the Maldives’ ongoing fiscal imbalances.

According to the report, increases to the salaries and allowances of government employees between 2006 and 2008 reached 66 percent, which was “by far the highest increase in compensation over a three year period to government employees of any country in the world.”

“Between 2004 and 2009, the average monthly salary of a government sector worker increased from MVR 3,223 (US$250) to MVR 11, 136 (US$866),” explained a UNDP paper on achieving debt sustainability in the Maldives published in December 2010.

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom responded to growing calls for democratisation with “a substantial fiscal stimulus programme” of increased government spending, “much of which was not related to post-tsunami reconstruction efforts.”

“This strategy led to a large increase in the number of civil servants from around 26,000 in 2004 to around 34,000 by 2008 or 11 percent of the total population. Thus the government simultaneously increased the number of public sector workers as well as their salaries,” the paper noted.

Consequently, recurrent expenditure – wage bill and administrative costs – exceeded 82 percent of total government spending in 2010. Presenting the estimated budget for 2013, Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad noted that more than 70 percent was recurrent expenditure.

“As in other years, the highest portion of recurrent expenditure is expenditure on [salaries and allowances for government] employees,” Jihad explained. “That is 48 percent of total recurrent expenditure.”

Population consolidation

Meanwhile, the Auditor General’s report noted that the government planned to carry out 406 projects under the public sector investment programme (PSIP) at a cost of MVR 3 billion (US$194 million).

The Auditor General however contended that the projects were formulated “without a national development plan” and that there was “no relation between the PSIP’s purpose and the proposed projects.”

While the stated purpose and policy of the government was population consolidation, the report stated that the harbour, sewerage, land reclamation, housing, coastal protection and other projects were included in the budget “without a plan” for integrating island populations in urban centres.

The Auditor General’s Office therefore advised against carrying out the projects planned for 2013 in the absence of a plan for population consolidation.

The report observed that “the main reason the state’s recurrent expenditure has increased” was developing 200 inhabited islands “as single units” and attempting to provide healthcare, education, social, administrative and legal services to small island populations.

The report stated that pursuing a policy of population consolidation was “essential”.

It added that the return on the investment for relocating populations of small islands would be seen in savings from the state’s budget for providing services to geographically dispersed islands.

While implementing such a policy could prove difficult, the Auditor General’s Office believed that “a national consensus” could be reached on the need for consolidating population.

Moreover, a glance at the state’s expenditure showed that continuing fiscal imbalances or budget deficits were “inevitable” if such a policy was not formulated, the report stated.

Deficit

The Auditor General explained that the fiscal deficit in 2012 was MVR 1.5 billion (US$97.2 million) more than forecast because of a shortfall in projected revenue from taxes and import duties as well as higher than budgeted expenditure on government companies and subsidies.

However, while revenue from Goods and Services Tax (GST), import duties and tourism land rent was lower than budgeted estimates, income from Business Profit Tax was more than expected at MVR 613.3 million (US$39.7 million).

The government also spent MVR 862.3 million (US$55.9 million) from the 2012 budget to settle bills outsanding from the previous year, the report noted

The Auditor General’s Office observed that revenue from the newly introduced GST was not enough to offset lost income from reducing and eliminating import duties.

“As a result of the change to the state’s taxation system, income to the state declined by MVR 495 million (US$32 million),” the report noted.

As reducing import duties had not resulted in a noticeable drop in prices, the Auditor General recommended reviewing the changes in consultation with the relevant authorities and amending the tax laws.

The 2013 budget

The Auditor General observed that the budget proposed for 2013 was 2.7 percent higher than 2012 and 19 percent higher than 2011.

An estimated budget deficit of MVR 2.33 billion (US$149 million) was to be financed by MVR 1.15 billion (US$74.5 million) in foreign loans and MVR 1.17 billion (US$75.8 million) in domestic finance.

Echoing a concern expressed by MPs during the recent budget debate, the Auditor General noted that projected revenue included MVR 1.8 billion (US$116 million) expected from new revenue raising measures that require parliamentary approval.

A recent mission from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had urged the government to implement a raft of measures to raise revenues, advising that strengthening government finances was “the most pressing macroeconomic priority for the Maldives.”

The measures proposed by the Finance Ministry included revising import duties, hiking T-GST from 8 to 15 percent in July 2013, raising airport service charge or departure tax from US$18 to US$30, introducing GST for telecom services and leasing 14 new islands for resort development.

On the last proposal, the Auditor General advised that the islands should not be leased without consulting the tourism industry and studying the impact of the decision in consideration of the tourism master plan.

The Auditor General concluded that it was “unlikely” that the new revenue would be collected in 2013.

Consequently, if there was a significant shortfall in income, the Auditor General warned that government revenue would not be enough to cover recurrent expenditure.

“Therefore, we note that it is very likely that MVR 509.9 million (US$33 million) would have to taken as loans to cover recurrent expenditure,” the Auditor General stated, advising that it was “necessary” to reduce recurrent expenditure by that amount before the budget is passed.

As a result of financing budget deficits with loans for the past six years, the Finance Ministry revealed earlier this month that government spending on loan repayment and interest payments was expected to reach MVR 3.1 billion (US$201 million) in 2012.

Moreover, the total public debt would stand at MVR 27 billion (US$1.7 billion) in 2012 and MVR 31 billion (US$2 billion) in 2013 – 82 percent of GDP.

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STO owed MVR 1.45 billion in overdue bills from state institutions, government companies

A large portion of the national budget had been “managed through the cash flow” of the State Trading Organisation (STO), the Auditor General’s Office has said, revealing the state-owned enterprise is owed MVR 1.45 billion (US$94 million) in overdue bills from government companies and state institutions.

In his professional opinion (Dhivehi) on the proposed 2013 budget submitted to parliament’s Budget Review Committee and made public this week, Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim stated that the “state’s cash flow was being managed through STO”.

“This shows that state expenditure is managed outside of the state budget, that this is an ‘off balance sheet’ finance arrangement and that the actual deficit will be much higher than stated in the state budget,” the Auditor General’s report to parliament stated.

The Auditor General stated that the practice was “worrying” and recommended changes to current treasury management “to put an end to depending on a government-owned company to manage the state’s cash flow.”

STO is a public company with an 81.6 percent stake owned by the government. The company was set up in 1964 to import and supply staple foodstuffs and fuel at controlled prices.

In its report to parliament, the Auditor General’s Office revealed that STO was owed MVR 398 million (US$25.8 million) in overdue payments from state institutions and government companies for goods released on credit.

Of the outstanding amount for items purchased on credit, the Finance Ministry owed MVR 388.1 million (US$25.1 million), according to the findings.

In addition, the Male’ Health Corporation (MHC) owes MVR99.4 million (US$6.4 million), Gan Airport Company owes MVR 61.8 million (US$4 million), Southern Utilities Ltd owes MVR 75.6 million (US$4.9 million), the State Electricity Company (STELCO) owes MVR 53 million (US$3.4 million) and the Works Corporation owes MVR 10.1 million (US$654,993).

Moreover, Fuel Supply Maldives, a subsidiary of STO, was owed MVR 186.2 million (US$12 million) for oil released on credit, mainly from government utility companies, the report added.

As a consequence, STO was owed a total of MVR 1.45 billion (US$94 million) in overdue bills, including outstanding bills worth MVR 289 million (US$18 million) from 2011 and MVR 8.2 million (US$531,776) from 2010 and earlier.

A total of MVR 1.15 billion (US$74 million) is owed to STO from overdue bills in 2012, according to a statement shared by the Finance Ministry showing STO’s receivables.

The government’s health insurance company ‘Aasandha’ meanwhile owed STO MVR 18 million (US$1.1 million) in overdue bills, the report noted.

The figures also showed that state institutions and government companies were “heavily dependent on STO’s working capital” to function.

“And as a result of not receiving millions of rufiyaa owed to STO from the state, STO has not paid any dividends to the Ministry of Finance and Treasury since 2009,” the Auditor General revealed.

In November 2011, the government sold five plots of land measuring 87,155.2 square feet to STO for MVR 522.9 million (US$33.9 million) and deducted the amount from monies owed to STO.

“This was carried out by the Ministry of Finance and Treasury following deliberations by the cabinet and based on the advice of the cabinet,” the Auditor General noted.

The Auditor General contended that the sale was in violation of amendments brought to the Public Finance Act in 2010, which stipulated that state assets and property must be sold in accordance with a law passed by parliament.

The plots were sold to STO in the absence of a law governing the sale of state properties.

“Therefore, we note that it is important to further investigate how this transpired and that the Ministry of Finance and Treasury’s plans to settle payments owed to STO from the government must be clarified before the budget is passed,” the Auditor General recommended.

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