Minister: Noone stopping president's office from formally requesting funds

Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev (Reform) at a Riigikogu committee meeting looking into the president office funding controversy.
Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev (Reform) at a Riigikogu committee meeting looking into the president office funding controversy. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Finance Minister Mart Võrklaev (Reform) says that he did not provide any hope to the Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia that it would receive any additional funding this year, as he did not see anything out-of-the-ordinary in the office's request to that end.

He was also, indirectly, critiquing the office's budget planning for the year, based on the funding it did receive.

Võrkläev also says that the head of the office, Peep Jahilo, has acted correctly in the matter, adding that if an official request for funding were made, it may be looked at anew.

Võrklaev gave an interview to ERR's radio news which follows in its entirety.

Interviewer Indrek Kiisler: Former Prime Minister Andrus Ansip yesterday was critical of your acting unilaterally on what to do with the president's office request for money. If it was an official request for money, you should have taken it to the government in any case, he said. If the government had answered in the negative, the Riigikogu's Finance Committee should at least have been informed of the decision.

Mart Võrklaev: First of all, I have to say that I am on the same page with many of the thoughts that Andrus Ansip expressed in that interview. But probably not with everything, because it is perhaps the case that he is not familiar with all the nuances of this case . 

But as far as the request is concerned, when we first talked with [Director of the President's Office] Peep Jahilo about this funding concern – this was at a government reception held by the president – he also suggested ending me an e-mail, which would be informal in tone, to spark a discussion about whether it even makes sense to submit an official request to ask for money from the government reserve. 

This is because, according to law, funding can only be requested from the government reserve in respect of extraordinary expenses which could not be foreseen during the budgetary procedure.

Jahilo sent this letter and then received my answer, that the office of the president had received additional funds for 2023, that is, the idea behind ​​these additional funds was that if life became costlier, there would be additional obligations - there were over €200,000 on personnel costs, somewhere around €130 000, if I remember correctly from the top of my head, on management costs, i.e. what would be for visits or other costs, and in addition, another €160,000 towards IT costs, which would otherwise constitute management costs, but since IT is a constant source of investment for us, additional money was set aside for that as well.

Since additional funding was granted, even as we have an austerity policy – and in my opinion there was nothing extraordinary there – Jahilo was also answered that he saw no reason to ask for additional money from the reserve.

Of course, this does not prevent them from submitting an official request, nor is that prohibited today. But, as we agreed with Jahilo that we would first communicate informally on the topic, something that was clearly understood by both sides, I don't see any problem in this regard; as I have said before, at least until this until the exchange of letters and the call from me to Peep on June 21, I have no complaints about the correctness of my communication with him - everything has been done appropriately, in accordance with the agreements.

Kiisler: If now, the office of the president makes a formal request, will you forward it to the government and will the government discuss it? This correspondence between you and Peep Jahilo is now also public on ERR's website, and can be read (the full text is here in Estonian). It also states that, for example, we have a state visit from the President of France and it would be an international scandal if that visit were canceled solely due to there simply being no money. Maybe when an official request comes, you won't decide on it alone, but will surely send it to the government for discussion?

Võrklaev: If an official request comes in, if it should come in now, then we have to decide what to do with it after evaluating all these circumstances. As of today, I can't say what exactly will be done.

As for expenses and whether something will be canceled as a result of the government not providing money from the reserve, due to there being an emergency [expenditure], each institution has its own budget, which should then be planned as is. All our state institutions, ministries and constitutional institutions alike, operate on the basis of the current budget which has been allocated (as part of the state budget – ed.). 

So we always have to look at where the money will be coming from and where we can spend it; money comes to the state budget from the taxpayer and however much that is, we can utilize it. In this sense, no one has any advantage here, which that is why you have to carefully select your annual plans and options.

Once again, while the president has already publicly said that he will have to cancel one visit, Jahilo's letter also mentions that perhaps a traditional event will have to be cancelled. This is what he, not the minister, came up with, and I have not given it any assessment. 

The events of August 20 (Restoration of Independence Day, this Sunday, when the head of state holds a reception in the Kadriorg Rose Garden – ed.) are certainly going ahead; there has been no reason to cancel them, as Jahilo's letter hints at.

I think that the president's office has to assess for itself whether it has enough funds or not overall.

 This trip to Australia, which was announced canceled, was actually planned over a year ago, based on the information we have not.

Whether canceling it was justified, whether it was the result of bad planning or because the government did not provide funds – will the president's office is certainly the judge of that.

Andrus Ansip also said in his interview that whenever he had any concerns confusion (Ansip was prime minister 2005-2014 – ed.), there was no problem in picking up the phone and calling President Arnold Rüütel or President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the heads of state during his prime ministerial terms, to talk things over calmly, and clearly. What is currently preventing mutual communication at such a level, so that this topic can be resolved?

But nothing has prevented it, and just as I said at the beginning of this conversation that I agree with Andrus Ansip in his interview, there is also the way in which I have done that – I called Peep Jahilo on June 21 and explained the whole situation. 

Since Jahilo communicated with me on this topic, on the topic of funding, and this communication was correct, I did not consider it absolutely necessary to go over the heads of those people whose job it is to do so, so to speak, and start calling the president with this question.

I called the relevant person in the office who deals with these matters, who, in my opinion, dealt with them at least correctly at the time, and told the whole story.

 In other words, just as Ansip suggests, my practice has been that, where there is a concern, I make a call and communicate and explain these things. I have done all this, and from the response I received - I repeat myself again – the feedback that he understands the severity of this problem, and the common conclusion was that he will also tell the president about it, as one way or the other, it could end up being a very big problem for both parties.

That knowledge was sufficient for me. I had spoken to the person who was the initiator of this topic, whose communication was correct, who acknowledged in their speech or understood the seriousness of this problem. My understanding was that he would also talk to the president about things; that is, I saw no reason to start checking up on it myself or to call the president separately on this matter.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

Source: ERR Radio news, interviewer Indrek Kiisler.

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