By Chandani Kirinde
President Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday in Parliament presented his Government’s 2024 Budget, the second since taking office in July 2022 and the last before the country goes to the polls to elect a new Head of State late next year.
Though the President made it a point to say it was not an Election Budget, it was characteristic of what most finance ministers would do ahead of an election year with incentives for public servants, pensioners and those on State welfare programs as well as promises of housing and land ownership for thousands of others.
The President began his Budget speech at 12 noon, a break from tradition as most Budgets are presented later in the afternoon post-lunch. Speculation was that an auspicious time may have been selected for the crucial speech.
Most Government MPs were present in the Chamber to listen to the President’s speech. In attendance were also several members of the diplomatic corps seated in the VIP gallery but much of the visitors’ gallery was empty.
The President’s announcement of increased Cost of Living allowances and pension payments as well as other feel-good proposals were greeted by loud thumping of the desks by Government lawmakers as they put on a show of unity.
Several proposals for the 2024 Budget were repetitions of what the President had announced last year but did not get off the ground. With the country in a better fiscal position than it was a year ago, the President said stalled projects could get started from 2024.
Instead of the traditional post-Budget tea party, MPs and invitees sat down to enjoy a late lunch after the President wound up his speech. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa skipped the lunch and left soon after the House adjourned. Speaking to reporters on his way out, he dismissed the Budget as a media circus, and one meant to deceive the people.
After lunch, the President held a meeting with the Government parliamentary group where ruling party MPs celebrated the birthdays of State Minister for Finance Shehan Semasinghe and SLPP MP Sagara Kariyawasam, both born on 13 November. The two jointly cut a cake and the meeting adjourned on a hopeful note.
The Second Reading debate on the Budget will start today and the vote on it is scheduled for 21 November. SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne is slated to open the debate on behalf of the opposition.
The Committee Stage Debate will begin on 22 November and wind up on 13 December.