• The proposed national budget tells the story of 2018

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    Marlen V. Ronquillo

    WHAT is the story of a nation, really, for a particular year and from the pragmatic and operative context of governance? It is the book of numbers contained in that year’s national budget, the national spending program. It is more than a book of numbers, according to jack Lew, who served as budget director to both President Clinton and President Obama.

    The numbers, according to Lew,” tell a story, a self-portrait of what we are as a country. They are a tapestry, the fabric of what we believe in.” Lew is a lawyer turned hard-numbers man who dealt with prose, not poetry. But the “tapestry“ thing is eminently true. That book of numbers tells the story of what a nation intends to do year after year after year. The dreams and hopes of a nation are pragmatically spelled out in the national budget.

    If you want a peek into the big and small possibilities of 2018, go right into the numbers contained in the proposed 2018 budget which is around P3.8 trillion. While DU30 reported the achievements of his Year One in his SONA last Monday, the near future is spelled out in that P3.8 million proposed budget.

    Malacañang said that the proposed budget intends to “reform and transform.” Is that truth or hype?

    The current budget process, a carryover from the martial law years, does not really vest in Congress, the lower chamber in particular, the power to enact a budget, meaning write up the numbers with little direction from the executive branch. It is the Malacañang-guided DBCC, the Development Budget Coordinating Committee, that actually does the writing, and then the proposal is passed on to Congress for approval. What Congress does is tweaking here and there, like reducing to zero the budget of a hated government agency. But Congress, as per the current practice, does not really exercise the so-called “power of the purse.” The executive, via the DBCC, does.

    The DBCC slices from the proposed budget the funding for the debt burden and that is the first step in the process. Technically, the first priority of the budget process is servicing the country’s debt. In the 8th Congress, then Sen. Bert Romulo, wanted that provision scrapped and proposed a less subservient approach to debt repayment. Unfortunately, he failed.

    After the debt service allocation of almost 10 percent of the proposed budget, there are the mandatories. Personnel services get, and always get, the largest pie. In the proposed 2018 budget, it is P29.4 percent.

    The government, as in many emerging economies, is a giant employer. From time immemorial, there have been countless efforts to wean away that role from government. Again, they all ended in failure.

    Then you have the maintenance budget at 14.5 percent. Buildings have to be kept clean and vehicles should roll. Some clever bureaucrats may even sneak in the costs of maintaining their mistresses to the maintenance and operating funds. The subsidy to the LGUs, at 16 percent of the proposed budget, is only slightly higher than the maintenance fund. The last item on the expense class is another subsidy, this time to the GOCCs, at 4.5 percent.

    So the dream of an infrastructure renaissance, however how big and ambitious that dream is, only gets the balance – more than 25 percent of the P3.8 trillion budget. The proposed budget for infra in 2018 is a record-setter. But then again, if you consider the fraying state of the country’s infrastructure, this budget, despite its historic number, still underwhelms.

    We definitely need a bigger allocation, an infra fund that is, say, 35 percent of the national budget. But given the mandatories, there is not much elbow room for a bigger and more ambitious infra allocation.

    The entry of private money via the PPP is often hailed as a complementary effort. But looking at the sad history of the PPP in other countries, where toll roads are often built to serve as cash cows for the plutocrats; a government financing, operations and maintenance of infrastructure work is deemed as the most ideal way to do infra.

    What about rebuilding Marawi?

    A yearend crushing of the Muslim jihadists in Marawi City will open up another expense front, the rebuilding of that ruined city. Unless Congress redoes the proposed budget to allocate a sizable pie for rebuilding Marawi City, there will be no money for the rebuilding effort. Every expense has to be an item in the national budget to make it legal. Right now, there is very little hope that that urgent agenda, the rebuilding of the premier Maranao city, will get enough money for a decent rebuilding .

    What about the Bangsa Moro Ld?

    Congress will soon rush the passage of the BBL, no doubt about it. Everything, as they say, is context and in the context of the Marawi City fighting, the rewritten BBL will be passed swiftly by Congress. For any public undertaking that is epic in scale, we have to first throw the original question. Where will we get the big, big money for the Bangsa Moro Land?

    The story of our nation, defined in the context of the budget process is this: so many urgent needs contending for funding and so shallow a funding well to draw that huge demand from. We have big dreams. But the wherewithal is always not enough. Sad but true.

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