The Long View: Abracadabra



On April 12, that living Petri dish otherwise known as the Presidential Spokesperson said that, according to the Secretary of Finance, government had enough funds in the 2021 budget for COVID-19-related expenses. On April 13, the same living Petri dish said government lacks the budget to give additional assistance to COVID-affected people. What happened wasn’t a reduction of virus particles in the brain allowing the patient to see more clearly. Some observers suggested it might have simply been that in that period, citizens actually decided to look at the national budget to find what COVID-related monies were available. The short answer is none (if you’re on Twitter look up @znsuzara who tweets on budget matters of public interest; the conclusions that follow are summaries of her findings).

Going through Department of Budget and Management reports, P568 billion has been released for COVID-19 response under Bayanihan 1 and 2 for cash transfers of DSWD, DOLE wage subsidies, and SSS and other health and operational expenses. In terms of direct cash transfers to citizens, P300 billion was released to DSWD, DOLE, SSS, and so on; of that amount, at least P266 billion was released under Bayanihan 1 which was last year’s government response; under the current Bayanihan 2, at least P34 billion has been released. The difference in a year can’t be attributed to an improving situation, observed the analyst. In the current budget as enacted, for the government to at least match the assistance given last year, a similar appropriation would have to be enumerated in the current budget. But you can’t find one. What can be found is P44 billion under four agencies—if those amounts are only used for pandemic relief, leaving nothing for anything else that might happen. What the budget did reveal was it “was heavily skewed in favor of infrastructure,” as this year’s is the real campaign budget, as all budgets the year before an election are.

Which is why the living Petri dish suddenly backtracking and having to admit what the research pointed out, makes sense. The 2021 budget wasn’t a pandemic relief budget, it was — and is — a budget arguably in aid of election.

The same analyst pointed out that DOLE for its part said it had no budget for wage subsidies and would have to ask an additional budget of P100 billion for that purpose. But, earlier in her analysis, the analyst pointed out the fiscal pit the government’s in: GDP losses have amounted to about P1.8 trillion. To be sure, government can literally create money but it comes at a price down the road, whether in inflation or lower ratings for good fiscal housekeeping (or credit). What can be willed into being has already been allocated—for infrastructure. What little can be given has already been decreed — P1,000 a head. What’s a government facing an election year ahead to do?

Here’s the clincher. On April 12, a letter from the President to the Senate President that the Palace was certifying three bills as urgent. The first (Senate Bill No. 2094) aims to amend the Commonwealth Act No. 146, or the Public Service Act; the second (SB 1156) aims to amend Republic Act No. 7042, the Foreign Investment Act of 1991; and the third (SB 1840) aims to amend Republic Act No. 8762, the Retail Trade Liberalization Act of 2000. The first proposal, if you remember, was floated as a way to allow China’s entry in telecommunications without having to amend the Constitution, by changing the list of businesses considered public utilities that must be 60 percent Filipino-owned. The second proposal obviously aims to do something similar, by changing the so-called negative list, which restricts which business activities cannot be 100 percent foreign-owned; and the third does more of the same amending-without-amendments. Similar measures in the past sought to eliminate the capital and equity requirement for foreigners who want to engage in the retail trade. As one Filipino entrepreneur put it, reacting to this news: “Now I see where more campaign funds will come from.”

Presto! The solution to the political fiscal woes of the ruling gang. No mere Abracadabra, it is the Avada Kedavra from Harry Potter; no innocent hocus-pocus but a killing curse — fattening up all the wrong coffers, while homeowners are quietly checking home security as more home invasions and break-ins increasingly becomes the community news ignored by the national media.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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