Very disconcerting. I just read an article published in UCANEWS, which claims to be Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source, co-authored by Inday Espina-Varona and Nelson S. Bandilla. The article basically spoke of serious cuts in the 2018 budget for direct public services in health, housing and social welfare. I do not know which made me feel worse, listening to the Senate investigation regarding the smuggling (drugs and all) in the Bureau of Customs or reading this article about budget cuts in areas of particular importance to me.
In the sordid BOC scandal involving drugs, I was not that shocked at the corruption being talked about, not even about the creative ways that it is rolled out. But a name of a Deputy Commissioner was mentioned among many that allegedly received payola. That particular person, Marine General Ecarma, is a personal friend and one of the straightest person I know. I cannot believe he has been on the take, and I expect him to clear his name. If I feel depressed, I know he will feel devastated, including his whole family and clan.
The budget cuts in health, housing and social services are painful, less to me than for the thousands or millions who would be deprived of something they desperately need. My pain is simply because more than fifteen years of advocacy work directed to ease the plight of the poor have also meant to influence government’s perspective. My co-workers and volunteers in Gawad Kalinga had been hoping that the work we have been doing all these years would inspire government to study our working templates, especially in providing land, homes and food to the poorest 5 million Filipino families. We had been hoping, too, that the government support for the poorest sector would continue to increase, not decrease.
Of course, I know that malice or prejudice would be the least possible reasons for the proposed budget cuts. In bureaucratic protocol, there is such a thing as absorptive capacity. I had occasion to attend a small forum where a young and apparently intelligent congressman, Karlo Nograles, was peppered with questions from veteran media personalities in the Bulong Pulungan group. The central topic was the funding for the free tuition for state universities and colleges, and where the Appropriations Committee headed by the young congressman would source out tens of billions. In that open exchange between him and the media personalities, Karlo Nograles was confident that he and the committee could find the money.
Of course, with veterans questioning him, he had to provide specifics to the general confidence that he exuded regarding getting the funds. And that is the connection with the budget cuts I mentioned earlier. Apparently, Nograles quickly reviewed the underspending departments that had reserved budgets but could not use them all. It was the fastest way to raise money even if the concerned departments would not be too happy. But money reserved for programs and projects that remain unspent meant that, for one reason or another, the concerned department could not roll out the programs or projects within the original timeframe.
It was mentioned that the Appropriations Committee is the largest committee in terms of membership, and rightly so. The power of the purse is the most important mandate of Congress, to see to it how monies are raised and spent for the common good. I am glad that funds should be allowed to stand idly by beyond the period that they are held in reserve. It is not as though there are no projects that are also beneficial that could have taken off faster and served the people ahead. Departments that cannot budget well cause unnecessary dislocation of funds. But what is more worrisome is that these underspending departments show some weakness in both planning and operations with key assumptions not coming true, enough to delay or defer implementation.
Meanwhile, our poor are landless, homeless and hungry, by the millions. And direct services to them will be cut because the agencies affected cannot comply with project requirements that they themselves mostly prepared. It speaks badly of them and penalizes the poor who will end up getting less than more. It will make Congress become stricter next budget time and subject the underspending agencies to more scrutiny instead of giving more sympathy. None of these departments providing direct public health, shelter and social services are new kids on the bloc. Any level of inefficiency or wastage on their part directly prejudices the poorest.
Listening to all the talk about budgets and how Congress has to scrape from here or there just to make sure that the free tuition for state universities and colleges (and technical vocational schools managed by TESDA) will be funded and have a good start, I get this jarring juxtaposition of how tens of billions are lost in Customs just from reduced fees and taxes from thousands of containers a day. The suggestion is that Customs officials can be getting as much as government from the containers through dirty transactions. I keep thinking of the free houses and food that can go to the poorest Filipinos, how these can empower them to rise above their inherited poverty.
There are still Marawi and Muslim Mindanao, long neglected victims of unfair development. They, too, need projects today, not tomorrow. After all, we want them to have a fresh start, too, We want them to feel that they are not second class citizens. We want them to know that peace is primordial, and we are willing to pay the price of aggressive development as evidence that we all care through our taxes. Government should be adding budgets for everything, just as government should be collecting more taxes by transforming the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
This is no time to rant, however. Poverty has to be aggressively addressed, corruption relentlessly confronted, and the drug trade effectively dismantled. We are in the eye of change, and like it or not, radical is the only way.