$200,000 Extra Budgeted for Top Lawmakers’ Travel, Staff

Just weeks after being granted a $600-a-month pay increase to finance more provincial visits to their constituents, National As­sembly members have proposed a plan to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover travel and extra staff, officials confirmed on Thursday.

The draft budget for 2001 allocates more than $200,000 for top lawmakers to make trips to the provinces and distribute gifts to poor constituents.

Under the plan, the National Assembly president would get $7,278 a month, the first deputy president would receive $6,234, and $5,195 would be allocated for the second deputy president.

Previously, the Assembly president was paid $5,195 and his subordinates considerably less, As­sembly Finance Commission Chair­­man Cheam Yeap said Thurs­day.

The money is needed because lawmakers “can’t visit their constituents empty-handed” and “everything now is more expensive than before,” Cheam Yeap said. “We are representatives of the people [and] we have to provide what they need,” he said. “They ask for a pagoda and school construction at their villages, so we have to abide by their proposals.”

He said the money should be distributed to villagers by top lawmakers because provincial au­thorities are more likely to distribute funds to their loyalists than the people who need it most.

But opposition Parliamentarian Hong Sok Hieng said he doubted the move would lead to a fairer distribution of government mo­ney.

National As­sem­bly Presi­dent Prince No­­ro­dom Ran­a­riddh has used government-funded meetings with his constitu­ents to de­noun­ce the opposition Sam Rain­sy Par­ty, said Hong Sok Hieng, who is a member of the finance committee. “I support everything for the people, but [Assembly members] take this money to use it for the interest of their own parties,” he said.

The draft budget also calls for money to pay for an extra 20 advisers for the three top lawmakers, bringing their total combined staff to 80.

Chan Van, deputy secretary-general of the Assembly, said 60 advisers are not enough.

He pointed out that during the Assembly’s first term, the three top members had 145 advisers.

“There should be more advisers because there is more work for the National Assembly now,” he said.

The proposed budget must be approved by the government before going before the assembly for a vote, Cheam Yeap said.

Late last month, Hun Sen approved an agreement to give parliamentarians an extra $600 a month until the end of their term in the year 2003.

The move would effectively raise by 50 percent the pay of National Assembly members, already among the best-paid civil servants in the country.

Supporters of the increase said the money is meant to cover the cost of lawmakers buying their own cars so they can visit their constituents more frequently.

But opponents say the money is meant to soften National Assembly members who might oppose the government on sensitive matters such as a pending trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders. They also note that the raise only increases the salary gap between lawmakers and other civil servants, who can earn as low as $10 a month.

Cheam Yeap said the National Assembly will wait to gauge public reaction to the increase before voting on the legislation, which has already won the approval of the government.

 

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