After a heated debate at the National Assembly over the 2005 national budget, the Assembly gave its initial approval Tuesday for the government to spend $792 million next year.
The first three chapters of the six-chapter budget passed with 92 of 103 lawmakers present voting in favor. The 2004 budget was $40 million less, at $752 million.
On Monday, voting at the Assembly was held up by a lengthy and aggressive question and answer session. Finance Minister Keat Chhon fielded barbs from opposition lawmakers who argued that corruption was sapping the country’s coffers.
According to a copy of the budget chapters approved Tuesday, the government plans to spend $22 million toward its debt to other countries. In 2003, the government paid $15 million to its debt, it noted.
Asked by a lawmaker about the national debt during Tuesday’s Assembly session, Keat Chhon declined to give the value of the country’s current debt.
The 2005 budget also states that the government plans to borrow another $138 million from undetermined international donors. Earlier this month at the Consultative Group meeting, international donors pledged a total of $504 million worth of aid to Cambodia.
Monday’s debate over corruption extended into Tuesday’s session, as Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers pushed Keat Chhon on the issues of high gasoline prices and low civil servants’ salaries.
Lowering gasoline prices, they argued, will decrease smuggling and increase tax revenue, while raising civil servants’ salaries from their current average of about $25 to $30 would prevent them from resorting to corruption, they said.
Keat Chhon maintained that the government would raise civil servants’ salaries by 15 percent next year. But, he said, the government does not control gasoline prices, adding that even if it did, gas smuggling would continue.
Funcinpec and Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh refuted Keat Chhon’s statement, saying that lowering fuel prices is within the government’s means.
“Gasoline taxes are high and the government can lower them,” the prince said.