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Editorial: CDF: Loose with taxpayers’ money

Published:Thursday | June 11, 2015 | 6:00 AM

Given that Andrew Holness is unlikely to have acted with subversive intent, we should perhaps give thanks for small mercies and hope that an unintended consequence of his seeming inattention is the collapse of that insidious patronage known as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). We won't hold our breath.

But the Holness affair does something more. It offers us another glimpse into how bureaucrats are often, in breach of the law, unaccountable with taxpayers' money, and politicians will scrap in defence of pork and for control of the ladle with which it is dispensed.

The CDF is that budgetary allocation from which members of parliament can spend, largely at their own discretion, with supposed oversight from a unit in the Office of the Prime Minister, up to J$15 million on projects in their constituencies. It, not unexpectedly, is one of the few programmes for whose maintenance there is absolute bipartisan support. In allowing him to preside over the delivery of patronage to mostly poor constituents, CDF plays into the MP's sense of himself as benevolent benefactor.

 

Election slush fund

 

So, schemes like the one Mr Holness, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader, planned for his St Andrew constituency to replace fences of old, rusty corrugated zinc with concrete walls are popular, as well as the doling out of grants for funerals and the sponsorship of this or that sport competition. Except that, in Mr Holness' case, over several years, he didn't spend the money earmarked for the fence project. It was presumed to have accumulated, which, some of his government opponents claim would give him a potential election slush fund.

There is, however, a problem here that calls into question how effectively those in the CDF oversight unit at Jamaica House do their jobs. Under the finance administration and accountability law, money voted by Parliament in any fiscal year and not spent within that period ought to be returned to the Consolidated Fund, unless there has been special permission to spend that money within three months after the end of the financial year to pay for goods or services previously acquired. There is, as a rule, no rollover.

Mr Holness, as a former prime minister, albeit briefly, and as leader of the Opposition, ought to have known that. So, too, should those who are entrusted with ensuring that the CDF programme is managed with probity - in so far as such a scheme can be.

The problem with the CDF is that it is fundamentally a bad idea. It weakens the State by undermining its bureaucracy by elevating the MP into being advocate for his constituents, arbiter in the allocation of state resources, and, ultimately, the delivery of patronage. In a sense, the MP becomes the corollary of the community dons and their efforts at inculcating a syndrome of dependency.

We wish we could claim that, because he appreciated the inherent immorality of the CDF, Mr Holness, though unwilling to make an open assault against it, subversively allowed some of his project money to lapse, hoping the Fund would collapse under the intensity of the scrutiny. No such luck - neither with regard to Mr Holness' intent nor the likelihood that the lot in Gordon House would wish to dismantle the trough.