The national budget should be an election issue
The public is generally aware that a major national event is taking place this year: the midterm elections. The entire country is caught up in the election fever which is starting to escalate and will peak on Election Day.
This is one event which involves most citizens from all sectors of society in a very personal way. They will exercise their right to personally choose national and local officials—from the senators down to the municipal mayors.
For once, the average voter is king or queen, and is treated royally by eager-to-please politicians. On Election Day, he or she will be transported to and from the polling place, fed, and briefed on how to fill up the ballot.
Elections trigger intense passions and draw public attention away from other national issues. It is also considered entertainment as candidates bend over backwards to catch the attention and vote of the electorate.
Promulgation of the budget: the other national event
While most people see the national elections as primarily a political exercise, many are not aware that the impact on the economy is deep and wide-ranging. During elections, the total output of the national economy usually grows as a result of many election activities. This is largely because the largest unit in the economy, which is the government, usually accelerates its levels of spending and focuses on visible and attractive expenditures which will bolster the chances of their re-electionist candidates.
Elections influence the size of the budget, its priorities and patterns of allocations. In turn, election spending by the government, political parties and candidates impact on economic growth.
While many people know that the national government has a budget, they are not necessarily aware that that it is closely related to the elections in several ways.
First, government spending accelerates the year before and during the election period. This is to create public awareness of government accomplishments. The focus is usually on infrastructure and other visible projects which create jobs and enhance the image of the administration.
For example, the Department of Public Works and Highways budget which is intended largely for infrastructure , e.g. roads and bridges, has shot up from P109.83 billion in 2012 to P155.52 billion in 2013. The Department of Social Welfare and Development which manages the controversial Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) has a budget of P56.33 billion. On the other hand, the Department of Health which is responsible for the health of the entire country, has a budget of P52.08 billion which is lower than the DSWD budget by P5 billion.
The Commission on Elections budget increased more than 4 times from P2.25 billion in 2011 to P10.03 billion in 2012 as it prepared for the elections. The budget of COMELEC for 2013 at P8.27 billion is nearly 4 times the 2011 levels.
Second, the dominance of Services as the fastest growing sector in the Gross Domestic Product is enhanced since election spending is characterized by information and communication programs, election material, as well as financial services to facilitate the withdrawal and deposit of funds to fuel electoral campaigns. This is not necessarily healthy for the economy since the sector where most Filipinos are – agriculture, mining and fisheries sector – is left way behind.
Third and most important, the officials who are mandated by the Constitution to appropriate the national budget – congressmen and senators – are chosen during elections. These are the people who will pass into law budgets for education, health, agriculture, the environment and other crucial agencies. What are the priorities of the senatorial and congressional candidates who are now pleading for the precious vote of the voter?
Budget issues are election issues
The campaign season is now in full swing. Voters who still can’t choose their senators, congressmen, partylists and local officials are treated to nonstop “infomercials” and below-the-belt mudslinging on television and radio.
It will be very helpful to voters if candidates who want to be elected as senators and congressmen declare their positions on at least two very important budget-related issues.
1. What are the candidates’ positions on special purpose funds?
Since 1996, Social Watch Philippines, of which Kaakbay Partylist is a member, has been campaigning for transparency in the allocation and utilization of special purpose funds. Soon after May 2013, the elected senators and congressman will participate in the appropriation process for the 2014 budget.
Of the total obligation budget of P2.27 trillion for 2014, only 46% or P1.05 billion is reflected in the agency budget ceilings. The larger portion of 54% or P1.22 billion is composed of special purpose funds, unprogrammed funds and debt servicing.
Special purpose funds and unprogrammed funds are lump sum appropriations which don’t show as much detail as the agency budgets. The present 2013 budget has P385.47 billion in special purpose and unprogrammed funds.
Commission on Audit reports have revealed difficulty in determining accountability for Special Purpose Funds. Social Watch Philippines has called for the abolition of these funds and their transfer to the budgets of regular agencies.
The 2014 budget will be debated soon after elections. What are the candidates’ positions on the issue, in the light of public demands for greater transparency in the allocation and utilization of public funds?
2. What are the candidates’ positions on the utilization of savings?
Early this year, the country was thrown into an uproar over accusations of abuse in the utilization of savings of the Senate. One Senator accused the Senate President of giving away generous bonuses to selected senators. Accusations and counter accusations quickly escalated from calculations of actual amounts given to favored senators to juicy details about personal lives. The furor which ensued lifted the lid on a practice which has been going on for decades. The exposé generated much public disgust.
While public attention was focused on the senators, abuse in the use of savings is practiced not only by the Senate but primarily by the Executive, and agencies with fiscal autonomy.
The 1987 Constitution allows the President to transfer funds among different units of his or her Office. This “Office” has been interpreted as the entire executive branch. Thus, the previous president created savings by transferring funds from one agency to another. Transfers totalled more than P100 billion. This practice has been continued.
On the other hand, the two houses of Congress and constitutional bodies are also allowed to use savings. This has encouraged the practice of creating “savings” which are divided among legislators and their staff.
What is necessarily legitimate is not necessarily moral. Is there a way to moderate this even without amending the Constitution? Yes, Congress can regulate and moderate this excessive practice by placing conditions right in the Appropriations Act.
Instead of digging into dirt and poking into personal lives, shouldn’t voters ask senatorial and congressional candidates to declare their stand on these important budget issues? – Rappler.com
Prof. Leonor Magtolis Briones is an emeritus professor at the University of the Philippines and convenor of Social Watch Philippines.
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