Assembly Gives Initial Approval for Budget

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.

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