Parliamentary budget debate concludes

Parliament’s budget debate concluded at yesterday’s sitting after 79 out of 85 MPs shared their thoughts on the record MVR24.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) state budget for 2015.

While opposition MPs criticised higher taxes, deficit spending and alleged discrimination in the allocation of funds, pro-government MPs praised planned capital investments and contended that the budget was balanced.

Speaking at yesterday’s sitting, Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan insisted that funds and development projects in the budget were fairly allocated and denied discriminating against constituencies represented by opposition MPs.

“We won’t see the colour pink in any part of this page,” the parliamentary group leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) said, referring to the party’s colour.

The MVR6.3 billion (US$408 million) allocated for the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) – 24 percent of the budget – would see an unprecedented number of infrastructure projects launched in 2015, he said.

All MPs were invited to request infrastructure projects for their constituencies before the budget was submitted, Nihan noted.

The budget was formulated to fulfil campaign pledges of the PPM, he continued, and President Abdulla Yameen’s administration would deliver during the next four years.

He noted that President Yameen has launched a MVR200 million (US$12.9 million) loan scheme for young entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized businesses.

Other PPM MPs claimed that the budget would bring “revolutionary” changes to the economy and spur growth, noting that recurrent expenditure of MVR15.8 billion (US$1 billion) would be covered by government income or revenue of MVR21.5 billion (US$1.3 billion).

Minority opinion

At Monday’s sitting, however, Minority Leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih questioned whether the MVR21.5 billion revenue forecast in the budget could be realised in full.

The parliamentary group leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) predicted that revenue in 2015 would not exceed MVR16.4 billion (US$1 billion), which would be 16 or 18 percent higher than total revenue collected this year.

However, state expenditure was projected to rise by 40 percent, Solih said, adding that the revenue would not be sufficient to cover recurrent expenditure of MVR15.8 billion and MVR1.3 billion (US$84.3 million) for loan repayment – leading to a deficit of about MVR600 million (US$38.9 million).

While MVR340 million (US$22 million) was forecast in the budget as revenue from introducing a US$10 ‘green tax’ in the last quarter of 2015, Solih noted that the government has decided to lower the amount to US$6 per day and delay implementation to November, which would lead to a revenue shortfall of about MVR300 million (US$19.4 million).

Public debt

Solih further contended that PPM MPs had falsely claimed that the MDP government inherited a national debt of MVR4 billion (US$259 million) from the previous administration in 2008.

“That was domestic debt. The state’s total debt was MVR10 billion [US$648 million] at the time,” he said.

Moreover, the MDP government spent MVR2 billion (US$129.7 million) in 2009 and MVR1.5 billion (US$97 million) in 2010 to settle unpaid bills from the previous government, Solih said.

When the MDP government was ousted in February 2012, Solih said debt had reached MVR21 billion – about MVR3.6 billion a year for three years – which grew to about MVR25 billion (US$1.3 billion) during President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s two years in office.

However, state debt would reach about MVR32 billion (US$2 billion) – 67 percent of GDP – at the end of 2014, Solih noted, which means MVR7 billion (US$453.9 million) has been accumulated in debt during the current administration’s first year in office.

“So instead of pointing fingers at each other let’s all work together to solve this,” he said.

Solih also accused the government of spending millions in excess of the budget approved by parliament for 2014, which was done in violation of public finance laws.

Nihan, however, disputed the figures yesterday and claimed that a national debt of MVR24,000 per capita at the end of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year reign had risen to MVR100,000 at the end of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s three years in power.

The state’s expenditure rose dramatically in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, Nihan said, which included repairing damage caused to infrastructure and assist displaced persons.

Instead of apportioning blame for driving up the state’s debt, Nihan said the responsibility of MPs and the government was saving the nation from debt.

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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.