[ANALYSIS] Duterte’s perverse priorities in the proposed 2020 budget

 

On October 1, ahead of schedule, the House of Representatives transmitted to the Senate the proposed P4.1-trillion national budget for review.

Lawmakers’ internal squabbles last year led to the first reenactment of the budget in almost a decade. Infrastructure projects were stalled as a result, causing in part the sputtering of economic growth. (READ: How pro-Duterte lawmakers hut economic growth)

A quicker passage of the national budget this time around, however, is no assurance of its quality. In fact, a closer look at the proposed 2020 budget reveals the government’s perverse priorities.

In this article I want to highlight 3 such perversities:

First, the government is slashing funding for a number of major social services, including basic education, free college tuition, and health care.

Second, lawmakers are brazenly pushing for the return of pork.

Third, the Office of the President is asking for a whopping P8.2 billion budget next year, 21% more than this year, for unconscionably bloated confidential and intelligence funds.

These developments, among others, tell us we should scrutinize the budget and monitor the budget process more than ever.

Education budget cuts

Let’s start with the public education sector, which will take a beating once the new budget is enacted into law.

Although the Department of Education (DepEd) will still enjoy the lion’s share of the budget next year – as mandated by the Constitution – DepEd failed to request enough funds for its yawning resource gaps.

For instance, DepEd wants to construct nearly 65,000 more classrooms and hire 43,000 more teachers across the country. But they secured funding for only 10,000 new classrooms and 10,000 new teachers.

Even funds for agencies attached to DepEd, as well as the voucher program for Senior High School, are in peril. (READ: DepEd attached agencies get lower share in proposed 2020 budget)

Meanwhile, funds for the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) are also being cut from P52.4 billion this year to P40.8 billion (22% lower).

Worst hit would be the implementation of the free tuition law (a P7.1-billion cut) and CHED’s student financial assistance programs (a P3.7-billion cut). 

The free tuition law was signed by Duterte in 2017 despite qualms among his economic managers that it’s unsustainable. When asked how he would fund it, Duterte memorably said, “I don’t know.”

True enough, it seems he doesn’t.

Health budget cuts

Public health care services also face huge budget cuts next year. Senator Risa Hontiveros called such cuts an “attack on public health.”

For starters, government is reducing funding for the Department of Health (DOH) by at least P10 billion in 2020.

This comes at a time when a slew of epidemics have sprouted across the country, starting with measles, dengue, and most recently polio – last seen in the Philippines nearly two decades ago.

Mass immunization programs need to be revived, but the DOH’s deployment of human resources in 2020 will see a sizable 71% budget cut.

The DOH’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program (HFEP) will also see a P10-billion budget reduction. Funding for the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) – the National University Hospital – is also to be shaved by P465 million next year.

All these health budget cuts will doubtless undermine the government’s ability to provide sufficient and reliable health care services, especially for the poor. It will also impede the first year of implementation of the ambitious Universal Health Care (UHC) Act signed by Duterte earlier this year.

Amid all this, Congress is moving to legislate the setting up of Malasakit Centers in all DOH-run public hospitals. These partisan one-stop shops helped catapult Bong Go (Duterte’s long-time assistant) to the Senate last May.

Bloated confidential, intelligence funds

While key education and health projects are being underfunded, Duterte is hogging up more funds for his own office.

For 2020 the Office of the President (OP) is asking for a whopping 80% increase of its confidential and intelligence funds, from P2.5 billion to P4.5 billion. That’s more than half of the OP’s total proposed budget next year.

The graph below shows just how huge these confidential and intelligence funds will be. In the previous administration, these funds for OP never exceeded P500 million a year.

 

A total of 19 agencies will receive confidential funds, but OP will take the lion’s share at 64%. Meanwhile, the OP’s intelligence funds overshadow equivalent funding for the police and military.

Confidential funds are inherently hard to audit. Ostensibly, the Palace said these will be used to “secure the nation.”

But with the drug situation worse than ever and China brazenly attacking fishermen in our very own waters, it’s clear the government is far from “securing the nation.” Very likely these funds will be used again to crack down on perceived threats, including opposition members (think of the trumped-up “ouster matrix”).

Despite the hefty and highly suspect budget request from OP, the House approved it in just under 7 minutes. The counterpart committee in the Senate, led by Bong Go, approved the same in just 8 minutes.

In so doing, Congress is blatantly reneging on its basic responsibility of scrutinizing the budget and exercising the “power of the purse.” The budget process has become a travesty of checks and balances.

The return of pork

Finally, lawmakers are pushing for the return of pork.

The 2020 budget plans to allot P100 million for each House representative in pork-like projects, according to Representative Joey Salceda: P70 million for hard infrastructure (like local roads) and P30 million for soft infrastructure (like medical and educational assistance programs).

Since there are 299 members of the House, this amounts to a total of P29.9 billion.

Lawmakers vehemently claim the budget they passed is “pork-free.” But let’s not delude ourselves. Pork is pork.

If you remember, back in 2013, a political upheaval swept the country over the egregious pork barrel scandal. Massive protests erupted over P6-billion worth of misused pork funds, implicating close to 200 lawmakers. The Supreme Court ended up declaring pork allocations in 2013 unconstitutional.

Lawmakers then and now justify pork funds by invoking the need for development projects in their respective jurisdictions.

But I argued back in 2013 that, “a huge proportion of pork money is not reaching those in most need of it.” Abolishing such allocations is but apt. (READ: Abolish pork: The data speaks for itself)

Is there any reason to believe pork in 2020 will be any different?

Budget watch

The national budget is one of the clearest expressions of a government’s values, its priorities, and its plans for the country. It tells us to what extent our politicians reflect the will and interests of the people.

But even a casual look at the proposed 2020 budget gives the impression that the Duterte government does not have the people’s best interests at heart. For instance, funds for our people’s education and health are giving way to shady confidential/intelligence funds and opaque pork allocations.

All of us must pay much closer attention to this and the last two budget cycles under the Duterte administration. Trillions of pesos worth of our hard-earned tax money are at stake. – Rappler.com

 

The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

JC Punongbayan

JC Punongbayan is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.

image