'All we heard were motherhood statements on empowering local governments'
MANILA - The 4 presidential aspirants who faced outstanding mayors and governors on Tuesday failed to impress with their vague and non-committal answers to questions on how they can further empower local government units (LGUs).
National Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
Senators Benigno Aquino III, Francis Escudero, and Manuel Villar Jr., and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro—all without experience in local government service—faced 100 local officials in a forum in Makati City. The local executives earlier conducted workshops where they agreed on 5 issues most crucial to the sector and which they would raise with the presidential aspirants.
The 5 issues were those on the sharing scheme in the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA), the rules in the utilization of local calamity funds, changes in the pork barrel system of lawmakers, the Mindanao peace process, and reproductive health policy.
The actual one-on-one interviews, however, dwelt mostly on the issue of financial resources.
Of the 4 guests, Escudero was the only one who favored increasing to 50% the share of LGUs in the national government’s internal revenue collection, from the current 40%. The IRA is the lifeblood of LGUs, usually covering up to 90% of their operational requirements.
Sen. Francis Escudero
However, Escudero didn’t have a definite formula on how to utilize the additional 10% that would be given to local governments. He said it can either be distributed among good-performing LGUs or be divided equally among local government, regardless of performance.
Teodoro and Villar were against increasing the LGUs’ share in the IRA, saying that the national government also needs additional funds for the functions it has retained after the devolution. They both proposed that efforts be exerted on improving tax collection efforts, so there would be bigger amounts to split, still 60-40, between the 2 levels of government.
Aquino said he favored the national government releasing funds only to LGUs that manage their resources well. He didn’t explain his proposed mechanism for this. He kept on saying he was still “studying” the problems of LGUs and how to deal with them.
Rafael Coscolluela, chair of the Galing Pook Foundation, one of the organizers of the forum, said that any candidate who asks for LGU vote should demonstrate an understanding of LGU concerns and the resolve to do something about them.
“If all that the candidate can tell us is that he will study it, we've been through that already. He has to say and do something good for us (the sector) and the country,” said Coscolluela, who was a former governor of Negros Occidental.
“If a candidate claims sympathy for [the plight of] local governments, he should be clear with his stand [on issues]. All I heard were motherhood statements. I want to hear specifics,” he added.
The current sharing formula of the IRA gives 60% of the collection to the national government and 40% to LGUs. Local officials have been proposing for a 50-50 sharing scheme, citing their need to finance the devolved functions from the national government.
Teodoro said the national government also needs more resources since it is the one that responds whenever the LGUs fail to address bigger problems, like terrorism in conflict areas.
“I see also the needs of national government where I sit,” Teodoro said. “Even though I capacitate you with 100 percent increase in your IRA, if there is trouble with Abu Sayyaf, you will have to call the national government and we have to use these resources just to go to you.”
Sen. Manuel Villar Jr.
Villar shared that opinion. He said the IRA will increase if the government will collect more revenues. “Sixty percent is still not enough to give basic services, education, health, and funds for foreign relations. We have to increase the pie.”
Escudero, however, said the current share of LGUs is not equitable. “If the national government treats LGUs as partner, they should share the revenues equally.”
Authority over natural resources
Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn was tasked by colleagues to ask all aspirants on their stand on the sharing of revenues from the utilization of natural wealth and on the power of LGUs in enforcing environmental laws.
Palawan, where Puerto Princesa is located, is engaged in a legal battle with the national government on how to split the US$10-billion revenue estimated from the Malampaya natural gas project.
All aspirants said there is a need to give more power to the local governments.
Teodoro said joint approval by the LGUs and the national government is needed to before the extraction, utilization or exploration of natural resources in any area is necessary. “You can’t have successful enterprise with LGUs opposing it.”
Teodoro, however, said that revenue sharing should be based on the magnitude and impact of the project to the assets of the national government.
The mining act and the power of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on issuing mining permits, said Escudero, should be reviewed to give more power to LGUs.
“LGUs need more power because they are the ones accountable to the residents...but they cannot run after these big companies without the help of the national government,” he said.
Sen. Benigno Aquino III
Aquino, meanwhile, said that the current laws on revenue sharing should be followed but they need to be further studied. He also opposed the power given to DENR in issuing mining and logging permits. “It does not follow the need to empower the people.”
‘Don’t devolve further’
The 4 presidential aspirants failed to give concrete answers when asked what reforms they would introduce in the devolution process.
Escudero said that the national government should take back all functions that were devolved to LGUs without corresponding funds, an opinion that has been previously advocated by local officials and local governance specialists.
“It is not right for the President to micro-manage and he or she is not exposed to the concerns of the localities,” he added.
Teodoro, meanwhile, said that there is a need for more autonomy in some areas in the Visayas and Luzon to spur competition among regions, but said he is not in favor of devolving more functions to LGUs.
“There is no way that we can hand over more functions to LGUs because our goal is really capacity building. Handing over more functions to the LGUs will be a function of the regional devolution,” the defense secretary said.
Teodoro said that in the case of health services, the national should government should be in-charge of disease prevention and of controlling epidemics, while provision of public health should be the task of LGUs.
Both Villar and Aquino said that there is need to review the 18-year old Local Government Code and conduct consultations with local officials to know which provisions need to be amended. (Newsbreak)