Abolish pork – strengthen local autonomy


romeroAn antidote to the much maligned pork barrel system is hastening the process of decentralization envisioned in the Saligang Batas. Local autonomy, which is the devolution of political and economic powers to local government units, is a means to accelerate the process of development with equity. This participative process was thought to be superior to the system of centralized program implementation by swivel chair generals from the ivory tower of Malacañang or from the halls of Congress many of whose tenants seem more interested in pocketing government funds rather than distributing these to constituents.

Indeed economists in the past, the likes of Gustav Ranis of Yale who had prepared a “Program of Employment, Equity and Growth” for this country, had commented that perhaps the tienelas-clad barrio captains in far-flung barangays are more sensitive to and are in a better position to gauge more accurately the dire social and economic needs of their constituents.

The lame excuse that the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), an executive-legislative conspiracy to institutionalize the pork barrel system, were aimed at hastening the development process is a mirage and at worst a fairy tale. The claim that legislators choosing projects from a “menu” provided by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) will guarantee the most cost-effective implementation of projects and maximize social productivity in rural areas is at best a half truth and at least an unproven assertion.

The public clamor is for greater transparency. For this to happen participatory planning is necessary. This means that Regional Development Councils (RDCs) should already identify lump sum appropriations contained in the General Appropriations Act. This would encourage a bottom up process while strengthening the planning and budgeting capabilities of local government units. It will also give teeth to the principle of local autonomy as mandated by the constitution. Without fiscal autonomy which has been eroded by unwarranted interference by Congress in project identification through the pork barrel system, local autonomy will continue to be a pipedream.

Indeed RDCs under the guidance of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) should be given the responsibility of approving regional development plans, physical framework plans (the so-called “hard” projects), the multi-year regional development investment programs, the regional annual investment program and other special plans.

The so-called “soft” items claimed by legislators should be shared by both national governments through line agency budgets and local government units (LGUs).

The grant of scholarships, for example, should be the responsibility of the Department of Education. A national scholarship program for higher education should follow the PMA approach which is based on national competitive exams. This will insure that only the best and the brightest should be deserving of government support and not the children of political allies or kamag-anaks. The same thing can be done with health subsidies which should be under the supervision of provincial hospitals, puericulture centers and other health units under the Department of Health.

In brief, legislators should just stick to drafting and passing laws which by themselves is a full time occupation and not meddle in activities which properly belong to line agencies and local government.

Sadly today, there does not seem to be any targeting of improvements in the regions by way of shares in overall national income, employment and investment. Any financial budget gains received by regions are usually the result of political expediency and the proximity of political leaders to the fountain of grace in Malacañang. As a result, projects suited to particular regions sometimes get waylaid. Other times big projects are cut up into uneconomic sizes to satisfy the clamor of influential politicians and vested interests.

In carrying out the regional development plans, regional authorities should be granted full responsibility and accountability for them. They should work out, on the basis of the plans and with the technical aid from government agencies, integrated projects for areas within their jurisdiction. These projects should be executed by local agencies and organizations and should include such activities as infrastructure, agro-industrial and social overhead facilities.

Budgetary allocations for development are better utilized when local authorities are involved in the allocation of government resources.

Local governments are hindered in their operations by inadequate financial resources, which oftentimes are hijacked by legislators in order to win friends and influence local politicians. The present system of revenue distribution favors legislators. In connivance with the national government, legislators’ projects are favored at the expense of local government officials. Because of their proximity to the central government legislators have effectively diminished the role in development administration of local officials. This pattern of budgetary appropriations must therefore be reverted, starting with internal revenue allotments for local government units which should not be delayed.

Instead of the seemingly haphazard budgetary allocation under the pork system, a more efficient allocation of projects and programs for the regions will have to be worked out under a reformed budgetary process to ensure that no region will get adequate investment and income to pursue below development objectives. This will minimize politicking and unwarranted congressional interference in the distribution of resources. This would also enable central governments to demand greater tax collection from the region especially if incremental investments of central governments for LGUs are related to their tax collection efficiency.

If this government is only too willing to grant fiscal autonomy to the Bangsa Moro, why cannot it do the same to the regions? These funds may be allocated according to regional development budgets to allow local government to meet employment and investment targets—that is where the PDAF and DAP funds should go. Along with this measure, the regionalization of government ministries and agencies should be accelerated, with regional offices allowed more than token prerogatives within certain general guidelines from the center. This will obviously change the sharing system of revenue allotment between local and central government, and do away with the unconstitutional and unwarranted intervention of Malacañang and the legislature in the socio-economic development process of the countryside where the majority of the alienated and marginalized citizens of this country reside.


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