Constitutional institutions would like budgets processed in the parliament
Representatives of Estonia's constitutional institutions would like principles on which their funding is decided changed so they would depend less on the government and more on the parliament. The constitutional institutions are the Riigikogu, president, courts, National Audit Office, justice chancellor and the Bank of Estonia.
"The Estonian Constitution prescribes the principle of separation of powers, which should be reflected in how their budgets are shaped. In reality, Estonia's constitutional institutions must operate in the confines of their budgets, which are determined by the finance ministry and the government. Past austerity has also hit constitutional institutions," the president's communication adviser Indrek Treufeldt told ERR on Thursday.
The Riigikogu has historically introduced little change to draft budgets coming out of the government in Estonia, including the budgets of constitutional institutions put together by the Ministry of Finance.
What constitutional institutions and their offices – Riigikogu, president, courts, National Audit Office, justice chancellor and the Bank of Estonia – have in common is that they are not part of the government but rather operate independently based on separate laws and the constitution, said Olari Koppel, director of the Office of the Chancellor of Justice. "Unlike in the case of politically managed institutions, such as ministries or agencies, the priorities of constitutional institutions are not determined at elections," he explained.
"The president cannot simply decide to no longer proclaim legislation and concentrate more on foreign communication. The justice chancellor cannot give up representing child rights and interests because the budget is tight and fuel has become more expensive," Koppel said.
"That is why many countries have given their constitutional institutions fiscal autonomy – their funding requests do not pass through the political filter of the government and reach the parliament in unaltered form as part of the draft budget."
Director of the Supreme Court Üllar Kaljumäe agreed. "The Supreme Court finds that the formation of the budgets of constitutional institution needs to be fundamentally revised. The recent process is heavily influenced by the executive branch – the government virtually determines the budgets of constitutional institutions, as well as the rest of the state budget."
Kaljumäe said that constitutional institutions do not have a government minister to represent their interests.
"Nor should they, of course, as it would raise questions of their independence. That is why the Supreme Court finds that the budget requests of constitutional institutions should move straight to the parliament. Upon finding a request to be unjustified, the government would have the right to lodge its official position, while the debate itself should take place in the parliament," the director explained via a press representative.
Indrek Treufeldt agreed when he said that moving decisions concerning the budgets of constitutional institutions to the Riigikogu level could be one way to alleviate the problem.
The National Audit Office said no different. "The National Audit Office has maintained for years that its budget request should reach the Riigikogu Finance Committee in its original form and for the office to have to explain the request to the committee. It would be up to the parliamentary committee to decide whether the Audit Office's budget is justified, needs to be increased, decreased or left alone," said Priit Simson, head of communication for the watchdog.
Simson pointed to a discrepancy, which has been highlighted on the international level. "Section 132 of the Estonian Constitution provides that the National Audit Office is an independent organ watching over use of public resources that needs to be safe from external influence. The top auditing bodies of other EU Member States have found the fact that the budget of the Estonian National Audit Office is determined by the Ministry of Finance to be problematic in the results of two collegial reviews," Simson noted.
Urmas Seaver, head of public relations for the Office of the Riigikogu, said it cannot comment in detail on budget talks in the government. However, the Office of the Riigikogu supports the principle of fiscal autonomy of constitutional institutions, which several countries have pursuant to the principle of the separation of powers in their constitutions.
The Office of the Riigikogu has previously told ERR how it has struggled to keep and find new employees in recent years because of its salary level which the office cannot hike due to funding having remained unchanged for years.
Viljar Rääsk, head of communication for the Bank of Estonia, told ERR that the central bank's budget is autonomous, which situation is the same everywhere in the EU to ensure central banks' independence from governments. "The Bank of Estonia gets its income from Eurozone central banks' joint transactions, reserves management and sale of commemorative coins. Pursuant to the Bank of Estonia Act, its budget is approved by the president of the Bank of Estonia," Rääsk said.
Politicians agree change needed
The outgoing government's Justice Minister Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) recently took to social media to write about the problem of constitutional institutions' funding, admitting that because no one fights for the funding of these institutions on the political level, they always draw the short stick.
"The current situation is unsustainable and could, in the case of a thrifty government, jeopardize the functioning of constitutional institutions and through it the rule of law. Solutions are needed to make sure their needs are considered in the state budget process. I would very much like to see constitutional institutions propose ideas of how to change the situation. Rumor has it some things are being prepared. It is to be hoped that the incoming Riigikogu realizes the seriousness of the problem and makes the necessary changes," Danilson-Järg wrote on Facebook.
The Reform Party, currently in talks for a new governing coalition with Eesti 200 and the Social Democratic Party, has supported constitutional institutions' request to bring matters of their funding to the Riigikogu.
"The current Riigikogu work organization fails to meet society's level of development and needs. The Riigikogu must concentrate more on public political debate and exercise control over the executive branch. We will thoroughly update legislation governing the parliament's work – new work processes, increased efficiency and responsibility. The budgets of constitutional institutions will be decided by the Riigikogu to ensure their independence from the government," the Reform Party program's chapter on statehood and democracy reads.
The Social Democrats' (SDE) election platform promised to boost "the role of the Riigikogu in matters of national importance, putting together development plans and legislative roadmaps, monitoring and evaluating their implementation."
Eesti 200 also mentioned reorganization of administration in their program. "The Riigikogu must once again become the center of gravity of administration in Estonia. The parliament must be a place of in-depth debate concerning important issues to which the opposition and coalition contribute equally. Citizens' trust in the Riigikogu must be restored and its ability to initiate major change grow. Trust in political parties also needs to be restored for which measures to prevent corruption and rework party financing are in order."
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Editor: Marcus Turovski