Party protection money: storm in a teacup or embarrassing anachronism?

The protection money (Estonian: Katuseraha) component of the state budget has come in for some criticism, in particular from the Reform Party. Others say that it is simply the icing on the cake and not the main event (picture is illustrative).
The protection money (Estonian: Katuseraha) component of the state budget has come in for some criticism, in particular from the Reform Party. Others say that it is simply the icing on the cake and not the main event (picture is illustrative). Source: (Marco Verch/Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of patching up roofs with protection money (Estonian: Katuseraha, literally 'roof money') we should dream more boldly and take on more complex challenges in the state budget, writes politician Mart Võrklaev (Reform). On the other hand, Isamaa/Pro Patria leader Helir-Valdor Seeder says whilst the system is not perfect, opposition to protection money exaggerates what is little more than the icing on the cake of the state budget. Here, we look at two different takes on the issue.

Protection money is doled out by the elected political parties at Riigkogu MPs' discretion, being allocated to many different pet projects, often regionally. The practice, dating back to the 1990s, has often been described as 'greasing the axles' of the state budget, to ensure it gets passed by keeping sweet everyone who votes on it (ie. representatives of all the elected parties), which gives us a clue on what the main criticisms concern.

The latest round of protection money saw over €2 million distributed by the majority coalition party, Centre, and a little under that amount by the other two governmental parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and Isamaa Pro Patria.

Too short-sighted

Whilst the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and the Free Party, have also been engaged in the scheme (to the tune of between €200,000 and €300,000 each), the Reform Party has been a staunch critic of protection money, on the grounds that it can lead to corruption and circumvents fair competition in awarding contracts and other projects.

Mart Võrklaev, a Reform Party member and elder of the Rae municipality, to the southeast of Tallinn, for one, has described the latest round of protection money as nothing less than embarrassing.

''Yes, in our municipality of Rae, thanks to the decision made by Toompea [ie. the Riigikogu], we are getting things for next year. The planned extension of a sports field is now €10,000 'cheaper', but it would be better if we could put the 'donated' money into a long-term project which has a real meaning, rather than solving pressing problems which we usually need to do with our narrow budgets and accompanied by pressure from local citizens for immediate results, such as a tram line in the district, which then neen't be funded purely by deficits'' Mr Võrklaev wrote in a recent opinion piece for ERR.

Mart Võrklaev (Reform). Source: Private collection.

''Do we really need this money? Naturally, but we have no reason to be thankful, nonetheless. Transport issues in areas bordering Tallinn [such as Rae] are getting more critical year-by-year due to increasing urbanisation, but the time for the state to look at the bigger picture is long overdue. Unfortunately, the money allocated this time has no such longer-term perspective in mind, but is the result of short-term ambition''.

''In facing longer term challenges, local authorities shouldn't expect the government to play Santa Claus. The state should on the other hand create sustainable and expert knowledge-based funding for innovative projects and smart solutions. However, the impression is more that there is no will to look to the future. There are so many fires to put out, so it's easier to share out goodies which come with unclear rules, waiting on the reward of votes''.

''Things may be getting easier, but rather than creating a solid future, we run the risk of simply creating temporary value and thus a rapidly dispersing prosperity''.

Think big

''As a local government executive, I would not like to answer the question 'where did you get the money for such and such?' by saying it came from protection money. Instead, I would like take pride in thinking about future generations, when it comes to regional policy. However, this means regional policy needs to become a buzz word at state level too. The current opinion amongst MPs that ten thousand euros-worth of pocket money can make things magically better is unrealistic''.

''We should thus think bigger, rather than using protection money as a salve; in this way, the potential of all of Estonia's regions might become better realised in the long run, fairly, and transparently''.

''Most illuminating is the justifications for the protection money rounds which comes from our MPs, namely that they should also have a say in fiscal matters. Sorry, but who then decides on the rest of the state budget, some €11.3 billion no less – does this simply disappear into a black hole?''.

Garnish on the main course

Helir-Valdor Seeder, Pro Patria leader, has in contrast rejected much of the criticism of protection money.

''This is an overhyped topic,'' said Mr Seeder, speaking on ETV current affairs show Studio One.

''Protection money has been and will continue to be an integral part of the state budget. The question rather is how individual objects and investments within the state budget are decided and how grants to various organisations are allocated, and at what level,'' Mr Seeder went on.

Helir-Valdor Seeder (Pro Patria) in the ETV studios on Wednesday. Source: ERR

Recipients of Mr Seeder's party's protection money this time around include the Konstantin Päts museum in the Pirita district of Tallinn [Mr Päts was President of the First Estonian Republic 1938-1940 and a leading politician throughout the interwar period-ed.], and St. Peter's Lutheran congregation in Harku, close to Tallinn.

''At its highest level, protection money has always been a government responsibility, under the aegis of the ministries, and in some ways this is the driving force, rather than the civil servants,'' Mr Seeder continued.

Moreover, far from being opaque, Mr Seeder argued that protection money was one of the most raked-over, transparent areas of the state budget.

Issues concern distribution, not principle itself

''It has just been singled out by those who oppose it,'' he continued.

Finance minister Toomas Tõniste, also of Pro Patria, echoed Mr Seeder's point that the main concern with protection money was in its distribution, rather than its concept. During question time at the Riigikogu on Wednesday Mr Tõniste said he did not consider the procedure for distributing protection money as reasonable.

Other parties' principal protection money recipients in the recent rounds included the Päts monument and environs in Pirita, the Kohtla-Järve Art School, and renovations to St. Johns' Church in Kärdla on Hiiumaa (Centre); funds to Otepää, Võru and Narva-Jõesuu local authorities for a variety of sports, cultural and transport improvements (SDE); the Maarja Church in Tartu, publishers of a nature magazine, and vehicles and equipment for the Estonian Defence League (Free), and contributions to a cancer treatment foundation, a women's shelter and a children's hospital (EKRE).

As stated the Reform Party refrains from engaging in the protection money scheme. The non-parliamentary Estonian Greens party, and the newly formed Estonia 200 and Biodiversity parties have not yet been eligible for protection money funds.

The 2019 state budget was adopted on Wednesday, 12 December, having passed its third reading at the Riigikogu by 52 votes to 46.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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