Focus Is On Reform as National Assembly Debates Budget

The National Assembly Friday began debating next year’s budget, setting projected government revenues and expenditures for 2002 at 2.6 trillion riel in a budget draft.

The proposed budget allocations show the government’s desire for reform, with reduced spending on national security and increases in the social sector, Finance Minister Keat Chhon said.

The government’s projected revenue for 2002 is 13 percent of the projected Gross Domestic Product. In 2001, revenue was 12 percent of GDP.

“This 1 percent increase will require much effort,” Keat Chhon said.

The proposed budget reduces security sector expenses from 6 percent of GDP this year to 3 percent in 2002, Keat Chhon said. Much of the proposed military expenditure would actually go to social-sector initiatives such as demobilization, the finance minister added.

In addition, a new government initiative will give extra financial assistance to poorer provinces, Keat Chhon said.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he was worried the proposed budget would be disregarded by the government. In recent years, “what the government spent was much different from what the National Assembly passed,” Sam Rainsy said.

According to government figures, some ministries spent more than twice what they were budgeted in 2000 while others spent less than half—maintaining a relatively bal­anced budget, but with vastly dif­­ferent spending proportions than those the Assembly passed. Fig­ures for 2001 are not yet available.

Keat Chhon defended the budget discrepancies, saying they were justified and accounted for, and not the result of corruption.

Sam Rainsy charged that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent ban on karaoke parlors has caused a ripple affecting not only karaoke girls, but also taxi drivers, hairdressers, tailors and others.

“Before the government abolishes people’s jobs, it should create jobs for them in ex­change,” Sam Rainsy said.

But the social benefits of eliminating karaoke outweighed the economic costs, Keat Chhon said.

The government often goes about its spending without thinking things through, Sam Rainsy countered. It “builds schools with no teachers or proper curriculum and public health centers with no nurses or medicines,” he said.

Sam Rainsy also called for higher salaries for civil servants—400,000 riel per month—to re­duce corruption. The government could afford such salaries if it bothered to collect taxes on the property of the rich, he said.

About 40 percent of the actual GDP is not currently taxed, Keat Chhon said.


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