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Local governments, beware of federalism

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Milwida M. Guevara

Milwida M. Guevara

 

If there is one singular reason why local governments should oppose federalism, it is because they may not be part of it. There is virtually no mention of local governments in the draft Charter except for a phrase, so inconspicuous, that I almost missed it. Section 2 (i), Article 12 of the draft, enumerates local government units as one of the 15 powers of federated regions. An unimpeachable source informed us that in one of the Annexes that has not been made public, federated regions have the power to abolish local government units. So beware local governments, your blind embrace of federalism may mean your ultimate death.

Contrast this with the current Constitution which devotes an entire article on local government. Article X unequivocally states that provinces, cities, municipalities, and barangays are the territorial and political subdivisions of the Republic. It clearly defines the term of office of local officials, guarantees local autonomy, and neatly allocates the responsibilities among the different levels of government through the enactment of a Local Government Code. The Constitution provides for consolidation of local governments to enable them to work on programs with a common purpose and objective.

There is nothing in the proposed Constitution that mentions cities, provinces, and barangays. What is going to happen to local governments? Currently, there is almost a neat allocation of expenditure assignments. Barangays are in charge of the “village justice system”, barangay health centers and day-care centers. Residents know that disputes can be brought to the barangay for mediation or arbitration. They can go to the barangay for first aid or for children to have their first experience of schooling.

Municipalities and cities are mandated to handle primary health care, social welfare services, tourism facilities, and construction of school buildings. But this is better said than done. For more than 25 years since the Local Government Code was enacted, the national government has refused to devolve these services and continues to control their budgets. Since it takes too long for the national government to respond to basic needs, many of the local governments have embarked on the provision of education, health, and promotion of tourism, with their limited resources. Those who have elected bad leaders continue to suffer.

The proposed federalism makes the allocation of responsibilities worse. The draft provides for shared powers between the federal government and the regions. But the lack of a clear delineation of responsibilities would result to a constant tug of war, passing the buck, overlapping of functions, and under-delivery of services. The end result is bad governance, and an underserved public.
Local communities are made to believe that federalism will deliver them from inequity. This is by giving federated regions 50% of the tax collection which will be equally divided among them. But equal sharing is not exactly being fair. This would in fact perpetuate inequity since rich regions like NCR will get the same share as poorer regions in the Visayas. The central government cannot exactly be trusted to keep its words of giving up more resources in favour of regions. Just look at how it is behaving with respect to the Supreme Court ruling that local governments are also entitled to 40% of the collections by the Bureau of Customs. It is huffing, hemming, and protesting, while filing a motion for reconsideration.

And so if I were a local government official, I would look at the proposed federalism as a Trojan horse. I would think a thousand times before I get trapped into believing that federalism will be good for me and my local communities. And if words can forebode the future, the proposed constitution uses the word “promote”. In stark contrast, the present Constitution says that government will “ensure” local autonomy.

mguevara@synergeia.org.ph

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