The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), run by economists who are by training more circumspect with their projections and parsimonious with hyperboles, sees poverty and unemployment further worsening next year. The takeaway is that things won’t be moving up, but sideways at best. This is the opposite of the sunshine optimism being projected by the Palace on a generally pessimistic populace.
The economic agency’s sober assessment encourages a closer reading of the proposed 2021 budget since this would be government’s main implement in easing the pain of lockdown-induced poverty, hunger, and unemployment affecting millions of Filipinos.
The considerably lower budget for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) is hard to justify. As I have noted in a previous column, the 2021 budget of the DSWD has been cut by 53 percent, from P366 billion this year to P172 billion in 2021. The executive, for reasons it alone can fathom, has decided not to provide emergency cash assistance to poor families next year. Despite some infirmities in execution and reports of corruption, the emergency cash aid – known as the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) – served as a vital lifeline for poor families during the early stages of the lockdown. The budget secretary offered no explanation for this perplexing decision during a Senate hearing, only to say that it would be up to Congress to decide if they want to increase the department’s budget to include the cash aid.
For some observers, the 2021 budget is stacked in favor of infrastructure – raising speculations of pork and patronage a year before the 2022 national elections. A scrutiny of the DPWH budget appeared to reinforce this observation. A Senate hearing uncovered a sizeable amount – P469 billion – in lump sum appropriations and “repeat” projects already funded in the 2020 national budget. The inclusion of lump sum projects totalling P396 billion is unconstitutional, since they violate a Supreme Court decision mandating projects to be itemized and specified in the budget.
Lump sums appear elsewhere. It makes one wonder if this is just an oversight or a deliberate defiance of the Supreme Court. They have been uncovered in infrastructure projects of the Department of Health (DOH) and the P16.4-billion budget of a task force under the Office of the President. The last item is rather intriguing. The fund will go to barangays declared “cleared” of rebels by the task force secretariat. Each barangay will be entitled to not more than P20 million in projects, to be selected from a wide-ranging menu that includes farm-to-market roads, school buildings, health centers, livelihood training, and assistance for indigents for their medical, burial, transportation, food, and educational needs. The allocation for these barangay-based projects dwarfs the proposed assistance for distressed local firms, and workers – including Overseas Filipino Workers – rendered jobless by the pandemic.
There are others, on the other hand, who take issue with the the unusually significant budget allocated to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), prompting them to label the 2021 budget as a “law enforcement” budget.
Based on the budget submission, the DILG received the third highest allocation of P246.1 billion. Only the Department of Education (DepEd) and the DPWH received higher proposals in the P4.506-trillion budget. The DILG budget is even higher than the P209.1 billion of the Department of National Defense (DND), which is mandated to protect our country against increasing external threats from an increasingly aggressive foreign power. The DILG’s slice of the budget is even much higher than budget of the DOH.
The Office of the President is also seeking P2.25 billion for intelligence funds, and another P2.25 billion for confidential funds. These funds are exempt from strict audit rules. The Palace is not even obliged to make disbursements from these funds a matter of public knowledge. Over the years, these funds have been described as the chief executive’s pork barrel, to dispense as he pleases. Perhaps it is time for Congress to consider a review of how these funds are utilized. With over half of government’s 2021 expenditures to be funded by loans, tighter rules to ensure that these funds are used efficiently and judiciously need to be set.
So do we call the 2021 budget a “pork and patronage budget” or a “law enforcement” budget? It could be both, what I would call a “carrot and stick” budget.
The carrot is the enticement of infrastructure and other so-called development projects coated with pork, intended to secure, reward, and retain political loyalty a year before the elections. The stick is for those who resist the administration’s determined efforts to mutate our democracy into an autocracy, and for citizens who may contemplate notions of questioning the legitimacy of these acts. It is a blunt weapon funded by the taxpayers directed against “domestic threats.”
The 2021 budget appears to fall short of its self-avowed purpose of being a “reset, rebound, and recovery” budget. Call it what you want, but with certainty, it is not a budget that responds to the needs of the people.