How Tbilisi Spends its Budget in the Pre-election Period
Prior to the upcoming local elections, the misuse of administrative resources for election campaigning will become quite an important issue. With only a couple of months remaining until election day, the government is beginning to excessively pour money into social projects, thereby influencing to a great extent budget priorities. What do we mean by an abuse of financial resources for a pre-election campaign? According to the OSI Handbook “Monitoring Election Campaign Finance”, typical misuses of budget resources for campaign purposes include unplanned disbursements of public funds during an election campaign period without a clear explanation. For example, increases in state employees’ salaries, increases in social payments such as pensions, and discounts on public transportation or other public services and utilities. The dynamic of Tbilisi budget’s planning and spending during the last few months is interesting in this regard. Tbilisi's budget for 2010 and transfers allocated from the central budget are unprecedented in the history of Tbilisi as a self-governing body. The budget of the current year has increased by 84 million lari in comparison with the previous year (the total sum of the capital city’s 2010 budget being 570.8 million lari). The number of public sector employees in the Tbilisi municipality has increased by 410 people and fund allocated for their wages reached 5.5 million lari. This kind of increase in city spending is by far the most interesting given the frequent announcements to “tightening belts” by President Saakashvili, intended to reduce bureaucratic costs. While other public institutions have optimized their number of employees and wages, it seems that Tbilisi City Hall has misunderstood the point. Following the decision of the Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi, the city agreed to raise the monthly monetary stipends of pensioners registered within the city by by 10 lari as of 1 March 2010. The hike in pensions is financed by the mayor’s office and included an additional 19.9million lari. Other self-governing bodies other than Tbilisi have not followed suit. The decision by Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi on the one hand contradicts the Georgian law on State Pensions, according to which the source of funding for state pensions is the state budget (pension policy does not fall under the purview of self-governing bodies), while also raising the issue of equality among pensioners not registered in Tbilisi. The Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi acted similarly prior to the 2006 local elections. Then, the Mayor’s Office proposed a 5-lari increase in pensions for pensioners registered in Tbilisi and also financed it. The Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi has also passed a decree whereby the 167,271 pensioners residing in the capital are to receive personal transport cards, enabling them to use public transport (metro and bus) at a reduced fare. The Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi allocated 3.5 million lari to this end in the budget. Moreover, the Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi has decided to spend 4 million lari from the city budget to provide all pensioners with 25-lari medication vouchers. Pensioners likewise received medication vouchers prior to the 2006 local and 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections. No such vouchers were issued in 2007 or 2009. Offering social assistance in this form to all pensioners, regardless of the income of their families, is out of sync with the social security reform which the Georgian government implemented in 2006. The reform indicated that an individual’s categorization, such as pensioner, single mother, disabled, veteran or other category, was not to be used as a criterion for the provision of social assistance (as it had been under the previous government). Instead, the assistance was to be distributed based on how poor any given family was and to what degree it needed government support, regardless of whether its members were veterans, pensioners or other category. This system of social assistance is still in place and its core principle, that of providing support according to need rather than category, has many supporters both inside and outside the government. However, the fact that the Office of the Mayor of Tbilisi is implementing social programs in parallel, yet contradictory with state system of social assistance has not drawn any criticism from the central government so far. Tbilisi's budget is not the only area where abuse of public funds is evident. The issue at hand, however, is to acknowledge the areas where the city is exerting influence using public funds and whether that influence can be considered fair. The conduct of fair and democratic elections depends not only on the day of elections, but on a transparent and impartial pre-election period.