Why Yangon MPs Slashed Nearly $30 Million From Regional Govt’s Spending Requests

By San Yamin Aung 12 June 2020

YANGON—The Yangon regional parliament has rejected spending requests totaling 41 billion kyats (US$29.3 million)—equivalent to the cost of building two flyovers—submitted by regional government departments, deeming them excessive or inappropriate.

Last week, during a debate on budget proposals from 23 government departments for the upcoming 2020-21 fiscal year, regional lawmakers detected numerous spending proposals with potential for waste or misuse of public funds.

One of the hot topics during the budget debate was excessive spending proposals. Among the irregularities that came under fire from lawmakers were a request for funds to cover transportation and labor fees that exceeded the actual requirements, large gaps between the estimated and real costs of certain items, and requests to purchase items deemed unnecessary while public needs go largely unmet.

One of the items singled out was a request by the Information Department of the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) for 137.345 million kyats ($98,000) to establish a music band to play at its ceremonies.

“Will it be useful for the city? Aren’t there other things that are more important than this?” MP U Zaw Moe Lwin from Kyauk Tan Township asked the parliament. He was not alone in his view; many lawmakers rejected the request.

The YCDC’s Market Department also came under fire for including inflated costs for materials needed to upgrade markets. For chain-link fencing, it quoted a price of 20,000 kyats ($14.30) per foot instead of 15,000 kyats ($10.72), which is the maximum defined rate set for the department. For the construction of concrete lanes, it quoted a price of 2,200 kyats (US$1.57) for a segment 6 inches deep and 1 foot long, instead of 1,850 kyats (US$1.32).

Municipal workers carry out roadwork. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Meanwhile, the YCDC’s Water Supply Department claimed excessive labor costs. The parliament cut 653 million kyats ($47,000) from its proposed labor expenditure alone.

Those are just a few examples of departments’ estimated costs being much higher than the likely actual cost or the government’s fixed rates, the parliament’s findings revealed.

“We have seen large gaps between the estimated costs and real costs, as well as inadequately accounted expenses. But this is nothing new. It happens every year,” said MP Daw Khaing Mar Htay from Hlaing Township, expressing disappointment at departments’ continuation of old bad habits.

According to the parliament’s findings, the Department of Fisheries asked for travel expenses for 11 staff, though the department only has 10 employees. Additionally, to pay for removal of unwanted bushes, the Rural Development Department asked for 1.2 million kyats per mile ($857) in Taik Kyi Township—more than twice the normal rate. In other townships, clearing bushes costs 500,000 kyats per mile ($357).

The above-mentioned cases are minor, however, compared to the Department of Road Management’s 107.958-million-kyat ($0.07-million) proposed spending on fuel for officials’ vehicles. The parliament cut the request by more than half after discovering that the department’s request exceeded the permitted amount.

What angered parliamentarians most was that the department was fully aware that the request was excessive, as it had made similarly excessive fuel budget requests in previous years.

Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein attends the ground-breaking ceremony for construction of the new Mingalar market. / Aung Kyat Htet / The Irrawaddy

“Budgets come from taxpayers’ money. It is not a buffet [for the departments] to enjoy,” MP U Nay Phone Latt of Thingangyun Township said during the parliamentary debate on June 5.

Another controversy surrounded a spending proposal submitted by the Department of Road Management to fund the construction of a nine-story regional director’s office in Dagon Township, equipped with elevators. The request prompted a backlash from lawmakers.

During last year’s budget debate, the parliament rejected the plan for a nine-story building, approved only six floors and allocating an 888-million-kyat ($630,000) budget.

But the department insisted on its original plan and commenced expansion work without informing the parliament, which must now allocate further funds to it, according to MP Daw Kyi Pyar of Kyauktada Township, who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee.

“This act ignored parliament’s decision and used public funds irresponsibly. Because of that, a total of 1.7 billion kyats has to be spent on just one office building,” she said.

During the budget debate, MPs also criticized planned spending to repair or expand roads that are still in good condition, while many other urgent public needs were yet to be fulfilled.

Flooding in Yangon. / The Irrawaddy

Regarding planned spending by YCDC’s Roads and Bridges Department, MP Daw Thet Har Nwe Win of Thaketa Township said she had discovered that some townships’ roads were still in good condition, but the department had asked that the roads be raised or widened to allow parking.

The MP suggested that instead of elevating the roads as a solution for flooding, upgrading the drainage system of the townships should be the priority.

MP U Tint Lwin, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that most departments this year had largely ignored public needs in drafting their expenses—just as they had in previous years’ budget proposals.

The 41 billion kyats worth of spending rejected by parliament has been reallocated to neglected township development projects requested by the lawmakers, he said.

The budget requests for the 2020-21 fiscal year will be forwarded to the Finance Commission chaired by the Union President. After the commission’s review of the proposals, they will be sent back to the regional parliament for a final vote.

So far, the parliament has approved 920 billion kyats worth of proposed spending.

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