Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 March 2019


There is a manmade water crisis, and everyone (who is affected, that is, who lives in the parts of Metro Manila that are the Manila Water Company’s concession area) is hollering so loud that we have barely noticed another manmade crisis whose (negative) impact is nationwide. I refer to the yet-to-be enacted 2019 national government budget.

Just to remind, Reader: The national budget is the main tool for achieving our development goals enumerated in the government’s Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022. It provides the annual financial resources we need to implement the Plan. But here we are, toward the end of the first quarter of 2019, and Congress has not yet approved the budget.

National Economic and Development Authority Director General Ernesto Pernia has already warned what the consequences are of a delay in the enactment of the budget: Our growth targets for 2019 will not be met (and any additional day of delay results in a lower and lower growth projection). He has even quantified the growth loss.

So what, you ask, Reader? Well, growth is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for development. The PDP targets that by 2022 we will be an upper middle country, that we will have reduced overall poverty incidence to 14 percent from 21 percent and rural poverty by a third, and that our human development index would have improved enough to bring us to a high level (we are now at mid-level). Among others.

The achievement of these targets by 2022 is what is being endangered by a Congress which either does not know, or worse, does not care about the consequences of its inaction on the budget. All its members seem to care about is the pork they can get from it. In other words, who cares about the rest of the Filipinos, as long as I get the money to ensure my reelection?

Imagine, Reader. The House version of the budget had been approved, and the Senate version had been approved.  The bicameral conference committee had met and finally approved a common version. So, we thought it was over, right? It goes to the President and maybe the President will veto the pork.

But lo and behold, the House tried to pull a fast one on the Senate, and tinkered with the budget again. It doesn’t matter what kind of tinkering. The point is that what is worked out in the bicam is supposed to be final. No wonder the Senate president refused to sign the budget document that was sent to Malacañang.

You can imagine, Reader, what a dilemma the President is in. He wants to sign the budget as soon as possible. But he does not want to sign a budget that is “illegal.” I should think what he really wants is to sign a budget that will reflect the priorities he set in the PDP. In any case, he is damned if there are any more delays, and he is damned if the pork is left in the budget. Both mean lower growth.

But does the budget document that survived the bicam reflect the priorities in the PDP? That is really the question we should ask.

Because we know that the original budget that the President proposed does. How? Just go to the Department of Budget and Management website, Reader. It has “Briefers” on the 2019 proposed budget, including its priorities, the macroeconomic framework that it is based on, how it jibes with the PDP, the proposed expenditures by sector, by region, by department, including the per capita expenditure by region. That’s the proposed budget. Transparent as all get out.

What happens after Congress gets through with it, we don’t know. And Congress doesn’t really want to say. I remember telling you, Reader, that Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Mar Roxas filed a bill that would have the changes in the budget listed by legislator, or something to that effect, also for transparency. To no avail. In the United States, the Congressional Budget Office reports on and analyzes what changes are made in the proposed budget by Congress. We should have that here, too.

Until we do, we have to rely on President Duterte to remove the pork in the budget. If he doesn’t know where it is, all he has to do is call on Sen. Panfilo  Lacson for help. Easy, if the political will is there.