The folly of budgeting on traffic tickets
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that the Jamaican Government has any abundance of options from which to earn revenue to finance the annual budget. And sometimes a particular budget item betrays sheer desperation.
A blatant example of one such act of desperation is the wild projection that under an optimistic amnesty, the state would pull in between $1 billion and $2 billion in six months from thousands of outstanding traffic tickets not paid by errant motorists, dating back to September 2010.
So confident were the budget planners that they shared up the expected intake: Out of every dollar from the amnesty, 40 cents would go to the Consolidated Fund; 18 cents to the Justice Ministry's Criminal Justice Programme and 42 cents to traffic programmes.
As it has now turned out, only $5.5 million has come in, leaving the Government with severe egg on its face and a sizeable hole in the 2012-2013 budget. Four months of the amnesty has gone, with no hope of realising anything even remotely close to what was projected.
The failure of the amnesty has forced the Finance Ministry to find some $468 million from somewhere else to help meet the shortfall, including $200 million from the Consolidated Fund and $218 million in reallocated funds.
"A little over generous" is the term used by Mr Vivian Brown, the chief technical officer in the Ministry of National Security to describe the Finance Ministry's projection that his ministry could have achieved between $400 million and $500 million from its 40 per cent of the amnesty revenue.
"It would have meant that about $1 billion in tickets would have to be collected," Mr Brown told Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee last week.
He is being diplomatic. Some would say it was sheer folly.
The first thing that is wrong in the equation is that any government of whatever colour would think of basing a part of a budget on the hope of people breaking the law. People get traffic tickets not for their good deeds but for breaching the road traffic laws, often endangering the lives of other road users. Fines are meant to discourage this practice, not to plug holes in the budget.
Then there is the little fact of not having an electronic system operating at the traffic court. So to come up with the figure, someone had "to make an estimate in terms of how many of the tickets in the system were processed through the courts", according to Mr Brown.
Moreover, we all know that the reason motorists get traffic tickets in the first place is that, apart from a few exceptions, they lack discipline and many did not expect to be caught. Why should they be therefore expected to have the discipline to pay up, even if it's in the contest of an amnesty?
Now, nothing is wrong with government accounting for the money expected to come in from traffic tickets. However, to factor it into the Consolidated Fund is at best foolhardy. That kind of money should go into an item involving discretionary spending.
Assuming that the government wants breaches of the road traffic laws to decrease or to end altogether, that same government can't be projecting for its share of the budget to be increased.