A crowd like this always evokes a strong feeling of sentimentality. Like most of you in this hall, I am certainly at the point in my life where I often turn my gaze back over the past and see if those years have really mattered — not only for myself, but for the people who have entrusted me a seat in public office, and for my country that has given me so much in my present life.
As if a nudge to my consciousness, I came across a scathing remark from an American journalist, James Fallows, about the condition of our country in his article written in 1986. In his words, which I still find fitting to this day: “Practically everything that is public in the Philippines is neglected or abused.”
Fallows believes that we have a tradition of political corruption, the extremes of wealth and poverty — all of which reflect contempt for the public good.
It made me look back to my early years in politics, when I had my first brush with the cold, hard fact of the public office.
It was during the 2001 elections when I shared a stage with a local veteran politician who was running for election in his locality. Not used to the fad, I was taken aback by his novelty song-and-dance number in what appeared to be an entertainment bonanza rather than a campaign rally. I knew then, as I know now, that Bill Clinton was right: Politics is showbiz, only with ugly people.
Immediately after the spectacle, the veteran politician told me with a smug smile on his face: “I will endure looking like a fool and be laughed at in public for 45 days of campaigning. You see, after winning this election, I could get back at these people in my three-year term of office.” He proudly called it “payback time” – and we all know why. Thankfully, he lost in the election.
Truth is, in my more than 40 years as a public servant, almost two decades of which as a member of the Philippine Senate, I have seen the likes of such veteran politician gravely abuse the public office by way of misuse of public funds. In countless times, I have stood in the august halls of the Senate to blow the lid off countless anomalous and corrupt transactions and to hold them accountable.
I have come to see that our government — like Schrodinger’s Cat — exists in at least two ways at the same time: winning and losing.
Let me start by saying that we are “winning.”
In all my fateful years in the Senate, I have witnessed our momentous legislative transformation.
In fact, the legislative measures that we had worked very hard for, as did the past Congresses before us, finally came into fruition in the past three years after decades of hurdling the legislative mill.
I am speaking of three landmark legislations: the Philippine Identification System or PhilSys; Universal Health Care; and the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education, which were finally enacted into law under the present administration, particularly during the 17th Congress.
These laws are monumental because they are crafted to respond to the grievances of our people. They also address our pressing societal problems that have been hampering our development for as long as we can remember.
We can only imagine:
Without our institutional National ID, we would still have 33 different identification cards issued by various government agencies. These result in unnecessary and costly redundancies, and worse, exclusion of many poor Filipinos.
This is the reason why, since my first term in the Senate in 2001, I have been consistently advocating the establishment of a National ID system that will provide “good identity” to all, a means for social, financial and political inclusion – a fundamental right of every citizen.
Without the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, our investment in higher education will remain at a dismal level compared to our ASEAN neighbors. In fact, the Philippines spent only 2.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product or GDP on higher education, compared to 7.6 percent of Thailand, 5.9 percent of Malaysia, and 3.2 percent of Singapore. This was in 2012.
With the passage of Republic Act 10931 on August 3, 2017, we invest in the future capacity of the students, thereby expanding the country’s productivity and economy.
Without Universal Health Care Act, the Philippines will still register a huge share of out-of-pocket (OOP) health expenditure, placing a heavy burden on poor Filipino families. In fact, OOP accounts for P342 billion or 54.2 percent of our health expenditure in 2016. Hence, the passage of the law is our government’s statement that health is not a privilege, but a right of every Filipino.
Kapag nagkasakit ang may pera, ubos ang pera niya. Kapag nagkasakit ang walang pera, patay siya.
With these milestone legislations, we are ready to turn the corner, to make a big leap for the greater public good.
But it appears that we do not put our money where our mouth is, and literally.
It appears that while we are gaining ground with our legislative efforts, we are “losing” our momentum in actually carrying out these laws.
There is an old saying about government spending: “Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.” A scrutiny of the National Expenditure Program or the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2020 shows us that the said milestone measures are left underfunded, rendering it practically useless for all its intents and purposes. In short, they are doomed to become dead-letter laws.
The fiscal gap for the implementation of these laws are alarming. Imagine: To fully implement the Philippine ID System, the amount of P5.645 billion is required for 2020. However, only P2.4 billion in unprogrammed funds is allocated for next year. This means that out of the target coverage of 14 million Filipinos and resident aliens in 2020, we can barely reach half, or only 6.3 million registrants for the National ID.
More so, to fully implement the Universal Health Care Act and cover all barangays nationwide, we need P257 billion, but only P172.8 billion, with a little help from the Senate committee report, is expected for 2020. With such amount, we expect only minimal difference from the projects already existing and implemented by the Department of Health.
The funding for the “Free Tuition” is no different. At present, there are only around 412,000 grantees of the program, considering that there are already 1.6 million applicants from the so-called Listahan 2.0, which represent college students from the poorest of the poor, and the projected influx of K-to-12 graduates who may apply for free tuition, the proposed P43.9-billion funding for the program is significantly lacking.
We dare ask — Where does the money go?
My diligent scrutiny of the national budget, as I have persistently done in the past, reveals dismal wastage of public funds.
In fact, during the plenary deliberations of the proposed 2020 budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), I have raised the concern on several budget items of the department’s appropriations under the General Appropriations Bill, or the version transmitted to the Senate by the House of Representatives.
These items are questionable in nature because they are duplicative of other line items, identified as lump-sum appropriations, lacking sufficient details and/or physical targets, copy-pasted from ‘requests’ for funding, and contain desilting/declogging/dredging activities previously agreed to be deleted from priority programs for funding due to their inherently attendant corruption, among others.
Alas. The DPWH initially recognized that most of the questionable budget items are simply ‘errata,’ which they clarified in their voluminous 533-page Amendment Sheets.
Errata, based on our understanding and as articulated in my interpellation during the plenary debate on the DPWH budget, should refer only to corrections of typographical errors and miscalculation of figures, and therefore must be clarified. Hence, these should, in no way, substantively and definitively change the budget items.
But what they submitted are mangled budget items which consist of insertions of 1,499 new line items amounting to P47.56 billion; and deletion of 1,384 existing projects with a total amount of P45.56 billion.
We are talking of wasted monies in one department alone.
To my mind, we reach a paradox: We lay waste of billions of monies on questionable projects, but we tighten our belts for programs that matter most.
Hence, my institutional amendments to the proposed 2020 National Budget include realigning these questionable appropriations to programs of greater value, such as the programmed full amount of P5.645 billion for the National ID; additional P2 billion for the Free Tuition Law; and an additional P4 billion for the Universal Health Care, among others.
Our National Budget comes in complex forms, made more complicated by those who attempt to manipulate it to accommodate the interest of the chosen few.
Further, I have always thought, albeit unsuccessfully, to make transparent the individual and institutional amendments being proposed by all legislators. In my case, I do so by publishing all my amendments on my website, pinglacson.net, for all computer literates to see and scrutinize.
This brings us to another matter that our minds still couldn’t fathom: Why do we keep on borrowing, year in and year out, more than what we actually need? During the plenary debates on the General Principles encompassing the FY 2020 budget, we dared ask our economic managers on the soundness of our national government financing.
Allow me to illustrate: Looking at the 2018 actual figures from the DBM Statement of Appropriations, Allotments, Obligations and Balances (SAOB), our total gross borrowings amounted to P897.6 billion, but our total deficit only amounted to P558.3 billion. Even if we take out our amortization worth P114.3 billion from our total borrowings, it still gives us P225 billion worth of surplus or the so-called “budgetary change in cash.” For FY 2020, lo and behold – we are borrowing a total of P1.4 trillion despite the projected financing deficit of only P677.6 billion. This means that we have more than half a trillion or P564.4 billion worth of excess borrowings for next year.
The current year, 2019, is no different. We are borrowing P1.188 trillion to address a budget deficit of only P620 billion.
No wonder our national debt has ballooned to a whopping P7.9 trillion and still counting. As hyperbolic as it may sound, literally each of us, as we speak, every Filipino and even those who were born this morning, bear a debt amounting to at least P72,000.
And yet, we examine the budget utilization rates of some big-budgeted agencies like the DepEd, DPWH, and DoTr. Their unused appropriations are so humongous that we always wonder why they continue to get more than their absorptive capacity. P67 billion for DPWH, P42 billion for DepEd, and P14 billion for DoTr – all in 2017, when the supposed full utilization had already elapsed.
As I have repeatedly been emphasizing, the national budget is the lifeblood of the economy, if not the country itself. No government or no nation will survive without its healthy components and circulation.
Our transformative legislative agenda, without sufficient funding, will be enacted for nothing. Its policy objectives will remain in paper; its benefits will not trickle down to our people in the grassroots.
Sadly and regrettably, the National Budget remains to be a source of self-aggrandizement of some. Now, corruption is so prevalent that people accept it is a given; public officials accept it as a must.
For the life of me, I could not help but wonder how our hard-earned tax money, accruing to the National Government, would only go to the deep pockets of a corrupt few. Left unchallenged, the abuse and indiscretions in our National Budget would remain as is, and will grossly evolve in different forms of monstrosities in the years to come.
If we turn a blind eye, waver in fear of intimidation, give in to pressure – we will leave nothing behind to the future generations that would come after us.
And I tell you with conviction: There is no fear greater than the fear of regret of not doing something that could ‘change’ the future of our country.
In ending, I appeal to every one of you, gentlemen of the Rotary Club of Manila, to come to terms with the truth: that “changes” could not happen in their own accord. It would require change in the moral acuity among those in public office. It would demand politicians risking hold on their power. It would exact courage from elected officials to lose friends and gain enemies in telling the truth. It would require politicians to risk losing what they already have. It would compel individuals, such as yourselves, to challenge the existing order.
May this challenge be etched in your minds and hearts in the pursuit of your goals for our country – individually and collectively.
Thank you very much and advance Happy Holidays to everyone.