A culture of dependence
It is a painful irony that the Local Government Code (LGC) has provided a legal platform for a culture of dependence to persist among local executives.
According to noted legal scholar Romeo Raymond C. Santos, the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) for local governments has bred a “dole-out mentality” among local officials. Most, if not all, governors and mayors have in fact become extremely reliant on the IRA as their primary source of funding for development initiatives despite other means of raising revenue available under the LGC.
In a subtle way, the IRA has allowed the central government, through the Office of the President, to maintain its dominance over the local governments. But the more troubling corollary of this anomaly is that local leaders continue to accept the convention to be constantly deferential to the president, thus allowing patronage politics, the longtime scourge of our political system, to continue unabated.
Nowhere was this fact more evident than in a meeting called by then President Gloria Arroyo on Oct. 11, 2007. This meeting with local executives in Malacañang was ostensibly to discuss matters pertaining to development projects.
A few days after the meeting, however, two governors revealed that they were each given a gift bag with half a million pesos in cash. A public uproar followed this revelation, with the demand that Arroyo explain why her office was handing out cash gifts to local officials. It was later admitted by a Cabinet official that the giving of cash gifts to local executives was normal practice in the Arroyo administration—an apparent standard operating procedure to keep her allies at the local level on a tight leash.
Sadly, this subservient relationship is sustained further by programs instituted in good faith by current central-government officials who, by all accounts, truly believe in the principle of local autonomy. The Performance Challenge Fund set up by President Aquino, for instance, essentially allows him to give monetary rewards to local executives who in his view have done a good job.
Whether by design or inadvertence, programs such as these create an environment that, instead of fostering among local leaders an independent-governance frame of mind, encourages them to be dependent on the good graces of Malacañang.
‘Political umbilical cord’
It is not hard to see that the debilitating “political umbilical cord” to Malacañang—which, according to former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., was severed by the LGC—actually continues to pulsate with life. This is the reason decentralization has not produced the level of development envisioned by the esteemed former lawmaker.
The challenge, therefore, is to find a way to reconfigure the relationship between the president and local executives in order to minimize, if not remove, the undermining influence of Malacañang in the implementation of decentralization under the LGC.
First and foremost, the prevailing view that local governments are mere agents of the central government must be changed. The more appropriate civil-law analogy is that the central government and local governments are partners in governance.
To institutionalize this new paradigm, Malacañang and Congress must work toward a meaningful implementation of Section 14 of Article X of the Constitution:
“The President shall provide for regional development councils or other similar bodies composed of local government officials, regional heads of departments and other government offices, and representatives from non-governmental organizations within the regions for purposes of administrative decentralization to strengthen the autonomy of the units therein and to accelerate the economic and social growth and development of the units in the region.”
The current Regional Development Plan (RDP) has essentially no imprimatur to discipline local executives regarding their mandate for local development. This is clearly implied in the plea of the National Economic and Development Authority director for local governments to align their development initiatives (if any) with the RDP drawn up by the pertinent regional development council (RDC).
To be a truly effective development mechanism, the RDC should be organized in such a way that it functions as a continuing presence in the region which supports and coordinates with the constituent local governments. Its task should not be limited to occasional consultations with local executives. It should be given the clear mandate and the right resources to bring all the relevant local officials in the region together and come up with a viable RDP.
The outcome contemplated here is not simply a collection of suggested policies. Rather, it is an economic framework for the region which the constituent local governments are obliged to implement. This is the only way the RDC can truly fulfill its constitutional function to “accelerate the economic and social growth and development of the units in the region.”
But more critically, a genuinely robust regional development mechanism can provide a modicum of cohesion in national development planning. It can result in the clear identification and designation of development expenditures that can minimize, if not eliminate, the need to allocate for discretionary funds (i.e., the Priority Development Assistance Fund and the Disbursement Acceleration Program). Meaning, it can destroy the very life-source of this culture of dependence.
Secondly, congressional oversight over local governments must be strengthened. A strong oversight function can be a potent mechanism not just to monitor the implementation of the LGC but also to serve as a public forum where local executives are obliged to demonstrate their aptitude in the performance of their functions. Their insufficiencies, whatever these may be, can be exposed and properly dealt with by their constituencies.
More importantly, the oversight committee can also be a forum for local executives to assert the prestige of their autonomy from central authority. This can be the platform for governors and mayors to showcase their significant role as partners of the president in national development. Either way, the constant grinding from Congress will eventually churn out a generation of local leaders free of this pathological dependence on Malacañang.
The culture of dependence still thriving among local leaders despite the LGC is a serious hindrance to the Philippines’ development aspirations. After all, this is the virus that allows political dynasties to flourish. The onus is now on the electorate to keep this pathology in mind when evaluating Binay, Roxas, or whoever else in 2016.
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.