Devolution. This was the spirit in which Nene Pimentel authored the Local Government Code of 1991. Pimentel and Ruben Canoy were the leaders of the federal movement which was fledgling then. Since the movement couldn’t find legs to stand on, Pimentel decided that devolution was the next best option. The local government code was passed but local government units (LGUs) were hard-pressed raising revenues because of the lack of development, specially in the regions. Third-class municipalities are dependent on internal revenue allotments (IRAs) to deliver the most basic of services to its constituents. The increase IRA allotment is not necessarily a boon for LGUs as they have issues with absorptive capacity.
Cielito Habito writes in his Inquirer piece “Déjà vu on devolution” looking back to 1992 when “the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991 (Republic Act 7160) had just become law, and its implementation ‘shook the bureaucracy to the core,’ as former Local Government Academy chief Dr. Alex Brillantes Jr. described it”.
The reality is that notwithstanding the LGC, [national government agencies (NGAs)] persisted in a centralized, top-down mode of management, and continued with national programs and procurements that force-fed template solutions to address widely divergent requirements. Rather than take matters into their own hands, now is the time for them to truly work with, and work through, the provincial LGUs, who can in turn coordinate the lower levels of governance. Meanwhile, the reduced budgets of the NGAs are best spent for steering, and especially for capacitating, provincial LGUs to do their job. LGUs should finally be allowed to do the rowing.
What comes into play again here is the bureaucracy’s structure which is large, unwieldy and staffed with unqualified personnel. The pandemic has revealed the soft underbelly of the national economy. The lack of regional development proved that the economy has been most affected by the pandemic. Forty percent of the national economic activity is in the National Capital Region and its outskirts (NCR+). Residents in the regions survive because of agriculture and fishing. If it were not for these then there would be pockets of unrest due to more people joining the New People’s Army (NPA). To an extent, this has been minimized by the development which has taken place at a snail-like pace since 1986. But there are the poorest provinces where poverty, unemployment and malnutrition are all running high.
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Pre-pandemic Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez already made a statement about the funding shortfall for the increased IRA because of the increased spending by the national government on education, public health and infrastructure. This has been made worse by the pandemic. The other side of the issue is absorptive capacity of the LGUs. This should also be an election issue. It’s time that charter change be seriously looked at. Federalism was one of the campaign promises of then candidate Duterte. There have been several announcements in the past by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) but nothing has materialized. Congress is now working on the basic amendment of the economic provisions of the Constitution and the eighty-five year old Public Service Act but these do nothing for capacity-building at the LGU level. This is an important issue because any Presidential candidate should have a clear economic plan of action moving forward.
COVID-19 is not going to go away anytime soon and the public cannot be in a state of suspended animation over the basic issues which are a factor in their daily lives. The increased IRA would also have less impact if the budget is legislated at the national level. Congressmen represent their districts but the power structure in Congress is such that deal-making is the norm which results in vested interests being taken into account with constituents needs being a far second. The pandemic has made disruption a necessity. We need new leaders who are capable of thinking outside-of-the-box for solutions to the problems we face as a nation.
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