National Assembly can’t pass budgets by the rules

Yanibel Ábrego, who presides over the legislature this year. Photo by the Asamblea Nacional.

Budget failures highlight legislature’s disarray

by Eric Jackson

The 2018 fiscal year begins on October 1 for the Panama Canal Authority and next January 1 for the rest of the Panamanian government. The National Assembly’s legislative session ends on October 31. It’s getting down to crunch times for the legislature’s Budget Committee.

The president of the National Assembly, Yanibel Ábrego, silent about the Comptroller General’s report that she took $20,000 from a government contractor, is a bit more vocal about money for the legislature. She wants $26.6 million more — just under $117 million in all — for the legislature in fiscal 2018. At the top of her wish lists are more security guards — traditionally political patronage jobs — and new computer software. However, the budget sent to the legislature by the Ministry of Economy and Finance provides only $81.5 million for the National Assembly, a cut of about 8 percent from the 2017 budget.

What’s the legislature’s Budget Committee to do? On September 18 we learned in La Prensa that committee chair Luis Barría has sent the entire proposal back to the cabinet. He said that the committee hopes to get a new proposal about which it can begin new hearings sometime in October.

On this point Panama does not get into US-style panic. In the absence of a new budget — at either the national or the local level — the previous year’s provisions remain in effect. So no government shutdown panic. On the bright side for some points of view, it’s a deputy’s wonderful excuse for a broken promise.

It’s more complicated for municipal governments, most of whose income derives from the national government’s appropriations. These can be cut regardless of what the mayors and representantes want, so it’s more common for local governments to go a year without passing a budget than it is for the national government. Complicating this situation for this year in particular, some previously legislated government decentralization is about to go into effect and the cabinet’s budget provides $203.2 million for this. No new budget, no money for decentralization.

On September 19 the Budget Committee did approve a budget to send up to the entire legislature to be voted up or down. That was the separately considered and accounted Panama Canal Authority budget. But the committee took $200 million out of canal operations funding — granted, “canal operations” can include frills that don’t directly have much to do with moving ships through the waterway — and put it into contributions to the national government’s general fund.

So will that Budget Committee act, rather than the rampant public corruption that has ensnared the National Assembly’s president and a number of her colleagues, spark the constitutional crisis that so many Panamanians have been fearing or hoping to see? The ACP budget decision has that potential because as a matter of Panamanian constitutional law the legislature might approve or might reject a proposed canal authority budget, but may not modify it.

Yanibel Ábrego may be stumbling into a crisis rather than leading the way into one. She’s a dissident Cambio Democratico deputy from Capira who was elected to preside over the legislature with the support of the deputies from President Juan Carlos Varela’s Panameñista Party along with other CD deputies who defied Ricardo Martinelli’s orders from Miami and a half-dozen PRD deputies who likewise deviated from their party’s line.

Perhaps more notably, Ábrego’s a crook. Elected in 2009 as an independent, she was among the first deputies to switch to Martinelli’s party. Shortly thereafter she was allowed to purchase a large state-owned river front lot in Capira district’s Ciri Grande — 93,509 square meters — for $60. In 2014 she was one of the deputies who received illegal state funding for her re-election campaign, but had the advantage of a Martinelli-appointed Electoral Prosecutor who sat on the investigations of all such abuses until the statute of limitations ran out. Now she is named by the Comptroller general as the recipient of $20,000 from highway contractor TCT, along with deputies Elias Castillo, Carlos Afú, Mariela Vega, Héctor Aparicio and Juan Manuel Poveda. Ricardo Martinelli’s company Ricamar also received questionable payments from TCT along with several other companies in which politicians may have had interests and the 28 TCT checks to legislative secretary Migdalia Sánchez in the aggregate amount of $142,000 were surely payoffs to more than a couple of dozen deputies who didn’t want to be so easily traced as Ábrego was.

The National Assembly’s president has never been convicted of a crime and perhaps never will be. Her upcoming trial is about whether she will be purged from CD on Ricky Martinelli’s orders. It’s not about bribes or peculation, but about her and several other party dissidents not following the orders he sends from Miami.

The bottom line about the legislature is that it’s the Panameñistas in alliance with dregs of the rest, now confronted with some harsh budget realities in light of an economy that has been slowing and debts from feeding frenzies of yesteryear. Neither Yanibel Ábrego nor the Budget Committee seem willing or able to rise to the challenge, or even admit that there is such a thing.


UPDATE: Within a few hours of this story’s publication, and surely unrelated, the leaders of the legislature’s three main party caucuses agreed to send the improperly amended ACP budget back to the Budget Committee without a debate on it before the full National Assembly.


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