B246bn 'central fund' gets pounding in NLA
Several National Legislative Assembly (NLA) members yesterday slammed the government over its request for a ''central fund'' of 245.77 billion baht. During a debate on the fiscal 2008 budget bill, they took turns criticising the government's fiscal spending plan after Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont submitted a deficit budget of 1.66 trillion baht, which he claimed was based on the sufficiency economy principle, with an objective to sustain economic growth.
The call for increased military spending also came under fire during 12 hours of debate which concluded with unanimous support for passage of the bill in its first reading.
The government proposed a deficit of around 165 billion baht, expecting to collect a revenue of 1.56 trillion baht in fiscal 2008.
''The deficit fiscal policy reflects a government objective to achieve sustained economic growth by providing essential public expenditure that takes into account fiscal discipline and economic stability,'' Gen Surayud said.
According to the prime minister, the government projected a 4.0-4.5% growth with an inflation rate of 3.0-3.5%. The growth would be boosted by accelerated budget disbursement, increased investments in megaprojects by state enterprises, and an expected increase in public consumption and investment.
Some NLA members disagreed and felt the amount allocated to the so-called central fund, which accounted for about 20% of the proposed fiscal budget, was too high and the government offered little detail about it.
Ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been accused of abusing a similar fund to pursue his political interests and personal gains.
The previous Thaksin cabinet had approved a number of projects during mobile cabinet meetings _ a move seen as an attempt to woo popular support.
NLA member Kamnoon Sitthisamarn accused the Surayud government of following in the footsteps of the previous administration which raised the central fund from 50 billion to more than 240 billion baht over the past six years without explaining the spending to parliament.
The prime minister has discretion over disbursement of the central fund.
NLA member Sangsidh Piriyarangsan, an economist, questioned the motives behind the hike in the central fund.
He said much of the amount should have been set aside for government investment projects and social schemes.
Mr Sangsidh said the government's proposed 5.9-billion-baht budget for dealing with southern violence was too low to effectively tackle the problem.
Economist Teera Bhongmakapat said the central fund had its merits but 246 billion baht was far too high.
''It's too much. The central fund should not exceed 10% of the total fiscal budget,'' he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Kosit Panpiemras said the central fund was earmarked for 16 projects including a 73-billion-baht pension scheme, and a ''well-being'' programme aimed at boosting public participation.
''The only project that is flexible [in terms of spending] involves emergency relief operations under a budget of 40 billion baht,'' he said.
NLA member Akapol Sorasuchart said the government's budget planning was a disappointment. It was careless and lacked direction and strategy.
''It does not give the country any nutrition. It reflects no strategic planning. It is a combination of fixed budgets of all ministries,'' he said.
He also criticised the government's slow disbursement of the current 2007 fiscal budget, saying that as of July 3 only 70% was spent.
Other NLA members said the fiscal priorities were misplaced, pointing to an increase in military spending compared with the education budget, most of which comprised fixed salaries.
Pathumporn Watcharasathien called on the armed forces to make better use of their ''specialists'' to improve education. She said the specialists should be encouraged to do research with academics in universities.
She also said the government should place more emphasis on lobbying and should provide financial resources to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to train their staff as lobbyists.
''Lobbying is important and will benefit the country in the [currently] competitive environment,'' she said.
The 2008 fiscal budget saw a 24.3% increase in defence spending, a second raise in a row after the 2007 budget when there was a 33.8% hike.