BUDGET DIALOGUE in Retrospect

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The series of budget dialogues held at the State Secretariat building from September right through to October were well attended and participation was keen. Kudos to Menteri Besar, Dato’ Seri Dr. Zambry Abdul Kadir, for initiating it in the first place. This is unprecedented as in the past, deliberations on state budgets were done behind drawn curtains and under tight security. It was a closed-door affair and attended by the privileged few within the MB’s political and administrative circles.

News on the state’s incomes and expenditures can only be gleaned from the MB’s speeches and press statements or during his post-executive council meetings on Wednesdays. The information is sketchy and much is left to conjecture. Unless one is good at computing numbers, there is little to digest. So a budget speech in the state assembly by the MB becomes one boring affair that is often relegated to an obscure page in the mainstream media.

We are keen to hear what the Prime Minister has to declare in parliament. The national budget affects the public in general. Tax increases, reliefs, petrol price hike, prices of essential commodities and pay increases are some of the details we want to hear, as they affect the rakyat at large.

A state budget is a different kettle of fish. Since the effects are minimal we do not necessarily take it seriously unless there is something for us. Perak Budget 2010 made some provisions for the poor and the needy and the newly born. However, the ripple effect has yet to be felt. Be that as it may, the fact that the MB is prepared to share his thoughts with us is praiseworthy.

The dialogue was, in all honesty, an information brief with the state financial officer, Dato’ Jamaluddin Al Amini Ahmad in the lead. He enumerated on earnings, revenues, expenditures and the expected spending for Year 2011. The state has experienced six consecutive deficit budgets since 2005 and the coming year is no better. A shortfall of RM50 million is expected. Tightening the belt will be the most convenient way out. But can this be done when the dreaded OE (Operational Expenditure) expands at an alarming RM8.5 million a year since 2001? As always, personal emoluments top the bill.

The dialogue with village heads on September 11 and NGOs on September 25 witnessed some hilarious moments. What matters most to the ketua kampung was money. They clamoured for a larger pay check claiming that the allowance they received presently was insufficient. The NGOs fared no better. One silat group asked for RM1 million. Another suggested that the state sell sand and water to Selangor. It was obvious that the participants were ill-prepared for the dialogue. It would have been more meaningful had the right people been present.

There are many grey areas which the state government have failed to address. Since its revenue sources are limited to land, forest, water and tithes (fitrah), which are under its control, making the most out of these resources become imperative.

Ipoh Echo has several times highlighted the large number of illegal activities taking place on state land. Logging, sand-mining, fish-farming, vegetable and fruit cultivation continue unabated. Some take place right under the authorities’ noses. Had these illegal activities been regulated, Budget 2011 will not fall short by RM50 million. And Jamaluddin need not suggest that the government “tap into its RM600 million reserves” to make good the amount.

FATHOL ZAMAN