POSTSCRIPT / August 26, 2004 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Assign a boss to each of 8 priority programs

BANKAROTE: Remember when then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada declared at his inauguration in 1998 that he was taking over a government that was “bankrupt”?

With cinematic drama, Erap was probably just creating an advance excuse in case his administration bogged down because of lack of money. At the same time, he was probably not passing a chance to make a dig at his predecessor Fidel V. Ramos.

Maybe nobody told Erap the technical meaning of “bankrupt” and its implications, that it meant the government had no more operating cash, could not meet the payroll, and pay its debts and other obligations — and that creditors would soon swarm over it to grab whatever they could.

But the term “bankarote” must have sounded dramatic in the imagined context of the actor taking over as president of a nation caught in a hand-to-mouth situation.

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FISCAL CRISIS: That was probably more or less what also happened when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Monday the nation was in a “fiscal crisis” — except that Ms Arroyo the economist knew exactly what the term meant but went ahead and used it.

At the time she said it, the foreign debt stood at more than P2.4 trillion (that’s right, trillion, or 12 ciphers after the 2.4), domestic debt at P2.5 trillion, and the budget deficit at more than P80 billion. Note that the government owes more from local than from foreign lenders.

Apparently, the President did not alert his economic managers about what she was going to say about the economy in her speech at the turnover of command of the Philippine National Police. She was not talking to economists, but to the people.

Her statement detonated like a terrorist bomb, coming as it did after a warning of academicians from the UP College of Economics that a financial disaster may engulf the nation in two to three years if the budget deficit and debt problem were not addressed.

While maintaining that the situation was indeed precarious, Malacanang stressed the morning after that the country was not about to default on its debts nor was the President asking for emergency powers as insinuated by some critics.

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NOT THERE YET: Almost to a man, her economic managers jumped in to also clarify that, technically, the nation was not in a fiscal crisis. At least not yet, and probably will not be in the foreseeable future.

“We’re not in that situation,” acting Bangko Sentral Gov. Amando Tetangco clarified. “I think she is trying to say there is a problem and we need to get the support of everyone to address it.”

Economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri, Trade Secretary Cesar Purisima, and Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin chorused that the President used the term just to make the public understand the predicament of the government.

“We’re not in that situation yet,” Neri said. “We’re nowhere near there, but the President was right in saying we’re in a serious situation to wake up everybody, especially Congress, to pass the proposed tax bills and for the business sector to pay the correct taxes.”

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FIRE FOR EFFECT: Don’t look now, but the President’s throwing that bomb may be the opening salvo in an earnest “fire for effect” campaign to jolt the country from its complacency.

Many of us have been saying that what the almost comatose nation needs is a Big Jolt to be able to respond to treatment. It’s that bad, or desperate.

Now that the President has told us the bare truth about our true economic situation and started to carry out austerity measures to force some savings in the bureaucracy and collect more revenue, some quarters are criticizing her for it.

As we see it, the President should just go ahead and do it. We elected her president and in effect placed our fate into her hands. Let us grant her good faith.

So let Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo do what has to be done with urgency and with a minimum of nitpicking from professional critics and resistance from those bound to get sideswiped.

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GOV’T VEHICLES: We have to start some place, or in several places simultaneously. Among the starting points suggested by Sen. Ralph Recto is the (mis)use of government vehicles and fuel. This item alone uses up some P3.1 billion each year.

Just restricting the use of fuel to vehicles that are labeled “For Official Use Only” or that sport a red government license plate — which is already mandated by law — huge savings could be realized. And that is only one area.

Recto said Section 15 of the General Appropriations Act also bans spending for the repair and maintenance of vehicles not properly identified as government-owned. There were 58,142 motor vehicles registered in the government’s name in 2002.

One big leak in the motor pool fund is in the diversion of gas coupons from entitled officials to their friends, relatives and lovers using private vehicles.

Recto recalled the scam reported last year in the public works and highways department that saw beat-up cars being repaired at a cost of 20 times their scrap value! This was charged to the P900 million allocated for the repair of government vehicles.

“Limit repair funds to not more than 30 percent of a vehicle’s real value,” Recto suggested. “Post car repair expenses on bulletin boards of the concerned agency.”

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LUXURY GAS-GUZZLERS: To cut maintenance costs, Recto added, reduce the number of gas-guzzlers in government garages by selling luxury cars of NGAs, GOCCs, GFIs and LGUs, as ordered by President Arroyo in two memorandums issued in February 2001.

(Of course, vehicles of the President, intelligence agencies, the Senate President, the House Speaker, and the Chief Justice are exempted from the “no red plate, no gas” law.)

We can sense that there will be more of these cost-cutting measures, in all areas of government, including an honest discarding of luxury and gas-guzzlers being used by pampered officials.

To illustrate this point, why would a black luxury Lincoln(!) bearing red plate SFN 409 be in the hands of anybody in government? We spotted this car in the Ermita entertainment district at 4:30 a.m.(!) over the weekend. What was it/he/she doing there at dawn?

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DEDICATED ACTION MEN: The President should follow up the “shock and awe” effect that her “fiscal crisis” statement had generated.

Having jolted the nation — and inadvertently sending shock waves to foreign financial capitals — with such an alarming disclosure, she has caught enough attention to start talking in earnest about the austerity measures she has in mind.

But more than talking, she should start doing things, or making things happen. There should be no letup.

This brings up the question: In this current preoccupation, who is her pointman? We have noticed that the eight programs she enumerated in her State of the Nation Address did not have a specific office or a particular action man to pursue each line.

As the President cannot do everything, she should delegate and pinpoint responsibility. Hopefully, action men or the “bosses” responsible for one program each would compete with one another in showing success in their assigned areas.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 26, 2004)

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