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Devolution was never about fights over funds

By Ken Opalo | August 17th 2019 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the Nakuru County Assembly.

His most memorable soundbite was a call for politicians to stop fighting for bigger budgets and use what they already have. This was in reference to the ongoing battle between the Senate and the National Assembly over the division of revenue bill. The bone of contention is about Sh17 billion.

The Senate wants the county allocation to be raised from Sh316.5 billion to Sh335 billion. President Kenyatta and the National Assembly insist there is no more money for county governments. Kenyans would be forgiven for seeing through the bald-faced lie. The executive continues to be a cesspool of obscene corruption, with reports of billions stolen surfacing every other day. There is money, just not for county governments.

In their defense, the President and MPs have argued that this year’s allocation is significantly higher than the constitutionally-mandated minimum of 15 per cent. Sh316.5 billion is 30.5 per cent of the latest available audited ordinary revenues (from 2014/15). But this narrative is not entirely accurate. It is purely a function of the delay audits, which allows the State to use base years with lower revenue collections.

Consider the last fiscal year. The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) announced that they had collected Sh1.58 trillion. The constitutional minimum 15 per centof last year’s total revenue would amount to Sh237 billion. However, 30.5 per cent of that amount – which is the share of revenue reported in 2015, and the number the government has been bragging about – would be Sh482 billion. For perspective, county governments are asking for Sh335 billion, which is 21.2 per cent of last year’s revenue. The tiff over the division of revenue bill exposes yet another gap missed by the framers of our constitution. The fundamental spirit of devolution was desire to limit presidential discretion in the allocation of public resources. Devolution is supposed to be about greater control of more and predictable resources at the county level.

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Yet what we have now falls far short of this ideal. Yes, allocations have grown to exceed the constitutional minimum of 15 per cent. But the executive retains tools with which it can manipulate county allocations. One channel is through delayed audits, despite the independence of the Office of Auditor General. The other is by varying the allocation above the minimum.

The President has discretion over half of the money going to counties. This is not what devolution was to be about. Given the revealed subservience of the National Assembly to the Treasury on matters budget, what stops the President from punishing governors by withholding half of their funding year-on-year?

A potential remedy to this problem might be to have a ratchet clause in the constitution, banning the reduction of funds allocated to counties year-on-year. The other option would be to have a freer and more competent parliamentary budget committee.

Finally, we could give the Senate more powers over the Appropriations Act. That would ensure any final figures in the Appropriations Act have county interests baked in.

Problems of corruption and lack of capacity in the counties are real and deserve our attention. But as we address them, we must not lose sight of the need to protect devolution by restricting presidential discretion over allocation of funds.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Twitter: @kopalo  

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