Budget bill passed in first reading

Budget bill passed in first reading

Big jump in contingency budget to be used at PM's discretion is most contentious issue

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks during the debate on first reading of the fiscal 2020 budget bill at Parliament in Bangkok on Saturday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks during the debate on first reading of the fiscal 2020 budget bill at Parliament in Bangkok on Saturday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The fiscal 2020 budget passed the first of three readings on Saturday in the House of Representatives, after three days of intense debate.

Of the 486 MPs present, 251 voted in favour, 234 abstained, and one did not cast a vote.

The opposition apparently agreed on abstention as the vote was just the first reading approving the bill in principle.

An extraordinary committee — 15 members from the cabinet, 24 from the opposition and 24 from the coalition — will now be set up to scrutinise the budget details and make changes that all can accept.

The 2020 fiscal year began on Oct 1 but the second and third readings of the budget bill will not be held until Jan 8 and 9. The second reading will discuss the bill by section and the third will determine whether the bill will be passed in its entirety.

If the bill is turned down in the third reading, it will be scrapped and according to tradition, the government must show responsibility by resigning and dissolving the House. 

The most debated item in the budget this year has been the central budget or contingency budget at the disposal of the prime minister, who can approve it without parliamentary review.

It makes up the largest portion, 16.2%, of the budget for the first time in 14 years, surpassing the allocation to the longtime champion Education Ministry.

While the budget for the Education Ministry is trimmed this year because some of its operations were moved to the newly established Higher Education Ministry, the budgets of both ministries combined — 509.1 billion baht or 16.3% — are still smaller than the central budget.  

The central budget stands at 518.8 billion baht, representing 16.2% of the 3.2-trillion-baht total, compared to 471.5 billion in the previous fiscal year.

Of the central budget, the portion for contingencies, which has ranged from 15-23% in the past 10 years, stood at 93 billion baht, down by 3 billion baht year-on-year. The items with the largest increases in the central budget were pensions (265.7 billion or 51.2% of the total), reserves, contributions and compensation for government officials (62.8 billion or 12.1%) and medical care for state officials (71.2 billion or 13.7%).

In addition to the annual central budget, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government has sought additional mid-year central budget allocations — normally seen when there were economic crises in previous governments — for three consecutive years since 2016. The stated goals were for contingency and competitiveness enhancement, infrastructure upgrades, economic sustainability, village funds and Pracharat funds.

The government has also started the practice of transferring portions of untapped budgets from government agencies to the central budget by passing a law enabling the practice.

Opposition MPs zeroed in on this issue in the budget debate, while also expressing concern about large increases in defence and other security-related spending.

The five ministries with the largest budgets are: education (368.7 billion baht, down 0.1% year-on-year), interior (353 billion, +7.7%), finance (249.7 billion, +2.8%), defence (233.3 billion, +2.7%) and transport (178.8 billion, -0.4%).

Before the opposition parties decided to abstain to allow budget scrutiny to move forward, there was concern that the coalition’s slim majority presented a risk when it came to passing key legislation.

The 16-party coalition came into the debate with 250 votes minus two Palang Pracharath (PPRP) MPs. Pol Lt Col Waipoj Apornrat was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the disruption of the Asean Summit in Pattaya in 2009. Krungsrivilai Sutinpuak of PPRP was given a yellow card and a by-election has yet to be held.

While the coalition commands more than half the seats in the House, its votes can go down. The House speaker and his two deputies, all from the coalition, customarily refrain from voting. 

The seven-party opposition has 243 votes minus three. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Future Forward Party is suspended from duty pending the outcome of his media-shares case. Jumpita Chantarakachorn of FFP resigned as an MP and Nawat Tohcharoen of Pheu Thai was convicted of masterminding a murder.

The wildcards are the two MPs who call themselves independent — Mongkolkit Suksintaranont of the Thai Civilized Party and Pichet Sathirachawal of Prahachatham Thai Party. 

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