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Last week, the House of Representatives approved on second reading the P1.8 trillion national budget for 2012. I objected to the measure on two main grounds:

First, the budget was rushed using a process that was both undemocratic, untransparent and which undermined Congress’ power of the purse – exactly the way that it was during the previous administration.

Second, and more importantly, the proposed appropriations act fails to address the country’s fundamental problems of chronic poverty and underdevelopment. From a tool for national development, the budget has been reduced to an instrument of pantawid dole outs and the intensified entry of private, profit-seeking operations in social services.

The first point is important because Congress’ job is not simply to act as a rubber stamp and accept the Executive’s proposal hook, line and sinker. Rather, its task is to improve the proposal.

It was apparent, however, that the Executive Branch and the Appropriations Committee took it upon themselves to defend the Palace proposal at all cost. During the very first budget hearing, budget secretary Butch Abad appealed to lawmakers to refrain from making adjustments and just pass the President’s budget as is. We were also advised that no congressional insertions – in other words no amendments – would be entertained. To emphasize the view that Congress had no power over almost a third of the budget, they even went to the extent of erasing from the books figures for automatic appropriations.
As the deliberations drew on, it appeared to me that the vote for the proposed budget had been reduced to a question of loyalty to the President.

From a transparent process of proposal and counter proposal, the budget deliberations have deteriorated into an alms begging ritual, with congressmen sometimes having to line up like in a confessional, taking turns begging the department secretaries for their slice of pork. Just like in previous years, amendments were not be taken up on the floor but will be discussed in the bicameral conference committee where we don’t know what happens.

As it was before, Congress had once again surrendered the power of the purse to the Executive.

The worst thing is that the proposed budget fails to address the structural problems and development needs of the economy. It is not that much different from the thrusts of the previous administrations. Without any comprehensive industrial plan, growth – especially with the global recession – will most probably remain at around 4 to 5%. And instead of hoping for that 2% increase through currently intangible public-private partneships, (PPPs), the budget should have been tailored to target a concrete growth of 7 to 8% through investments in our industries and jobs for our people. Alas, we are allotting P22 billion for PPPs next year but the agencies themselves have yet to finalize their guidelines.

The cornerstone strategy in fighting poverty – conditional cash transfers – will cost us P39 billion and a debt of almost $900 million but it does not even produce jobs or livelihoods. In fact, resources for livelihood programs are miniscule compared to the cash grants. Instead of prioritizing jobs and giving emergency grants, we are giving out monthly allowances.

The 5-year CCT is not a strategy against poverty. It cannot be a strategy. It is a pantawid, an expensive tactical move to window dress our statistics for the 2015 MDG deadline. In fact, the National Anti Poverty Commission admitted in plenary last week that the Administration does not even have an approved anti-poverty program to speak of.

For 2012, all 112 state colleges and universities, 12 specialty hospitals and 55 DOH-retained local hospitals were given zero capital outlay. The Health Facilities Enhancement Program, which is supposed to address this problem was slashed to merely a fifth of the original DOH proposal of P25 billion, to be shared by more than 450 hospitals and health units nationwide.

If the administration is serious in improving access and quality of education and health, or in building up industries and creating jobs, it should start putting money where its mouth is.

Walang pagbabago. Not in how the budget is made nor in what it contains. What a waste of time. And I thought there would be real change with the new administration.#

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