One of the major initiatives of President Cory Aquino in restoring our democratic institutions was pushing for and signing the Local Government Code of 1991. The idea was to bring the government closer to the people. She had already succeeded in restoring free elections, the Congress and local governments. There was a new Constitution in place. During the Marcos era, the government was so centralized that often people would go to Manila and implore then-Minister of Human Settlements Imelda Marcos to give them a water well. Local governments have indeed gained more power. It is 30 years since then; yet many of the decentralization provisions have not been complied with.
The Lower House, which drafts the budget appropriations has not adequately provided funding for health concerns to the local governments. This has burdened the provincial municipalities which have assumed responsibility for operating health centers and hospitals; and are now, because of the pandemic, burdened even more heavily. The Department of Health raises an issue that many provincial governments are begging them to recentralize management of hospitals. But that is because they are unable to bear the burden of their operating costs.
There is also not enough money for LGUs (local government units) to comply with environmental standards in managing their solid wastes which have an impact on community health, and which today, with the pandemic, have multiplied with increases in single-use plastic packaging and infectious materials such as used masks and hospital wastes.
The passing of the Local Government Code of 1991 was an unexpected boon since members of the Lower House are averse to empowering local politicians too much. It seems that then Speaker Ramon Mitra, Jr., to please President Cory, passed it on a Saturday morning when most Congressmen were in the provinces and the Friday sessions were traditionally not adjourned to make way for local bills (such as naming highways after their relatives) to pass without much trouble. However, actual decentralization, nay, devolution, of authorities and especially corresponding budget allocations as provided in the Local Government Code have taken a long time. Even today, the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) for managing the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) response does not have a local government representative. They even decided to reopen movie houses despite the continuing risk of community infections. Fortunately, local government leaders, who know their constituencies better, complained; and so, because he holds all the recentralized power, President Duterte rescinded that decision.
Today, local governments are focused on managing the COVID-19 crisis. They are really the frontliners, in terms of delivery of basic government services. It is crucial that adequate funding be provided, particularly on health matters. It seems there is an additional allocation for health budgets for LGUs under consideration in Congress; and LGUs will also finally share in Customs and other tax collections. But the funds will not be available until 2022. But the need is now. And it is urgent and crucial. Perhaps the Office of the President, which has billions of pesos in discretionary funds, can allocate some of its vast resources to the LGUs, which can better reach their constituents than national government bureaucracies. The LGUs have broader and more responsibilities than the military and police which the President tends to favor. The barangays, which come face to face with the people, especially the needy and poor, can be more effective if they have adequate funding.
Another area of concern which is generally ignored, is garbage disposal. These environmental concerns are becoming greater and, especially during the pandemic, a health concern. Municipalities, and especially cities, produce thousands of tons per day of solid waste. This takes up a major part of the local government budget. Garbage collectors and transporters to garbage dumps, where there are any, can cost hundreds of millions of pesos since these services are paid for by the kilo. Garbage fees charged to businesses by LGUs are ridiculously low. And compliance is not 100%. Mismanagement or neglect of the garbage dumps, which is mostly the case, is not just an environmental issue. It is a community health hazard. Hospital waste these days probably exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19 as these are not always properly sanitized and disposed of. Often the wastes affect nearby waterways which people in the communities travel on or swim in, or, worse, use for household needs.
Environmentalists rally against incineration, so this garbage disposal method is disallowed by national policies. However, there seem to be scientific advances in Korea, Holland, and other places where incineration is said to produce minimal pollution — below the government’s regulatory maximum carbon emissions. It might be worthwhile for the government to look into these modern technologies and review its solid waste disposal policy. It will be a matter of balancing and prioritizing health concerns for breathing clean air and spreading infectious diseases. Meanwhile, LGUs are authorized to decide on solid waste disposal policies. They should also be funded adequately for effectiveness.
These issues reinforce my belief that local governments should get the higher share of the national appropriations since they are responsible for delivery of basic government services (health, education, social welfare, environment, etc.). These concerns, if managed well, make life more congenial for the citizenry. The current allocation of the majority of funds to national government agencies has to be reviewed. The misallocation of appropriations has not benefited our people. It hampers the LGUs’ ability to be responsive to the needs of their constituents. It also enables the Office of the President to decide on development issues big and small, making it the be all and end all of government. This is a reversal of President Cory Aquino’s initiatives to decentralize power and authority in order to strengthen democracy after the EDSA Revolution.
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.