Media track cuts, spikes in Marcos’ proposed budget

ONCE MORE, ‘tis the season for budget talk. This is one area of concern about which  the media can lead with news and commentary to help the public understand whether the budget indicates what the Marcos administration intends to do for the good of the people. The reports on it should move away from simply listing allocations for this or that sector, but should explain how the amounts allocated are indicative of administration  priorities against the background of the needs that the people themselves think should be addressed. 

Presented on August 22 to Congress as a bill, the proposed budget will be discussed first in the House of Representatives. The media should track these discussions, following the arguments presented by departments and agencies as well as the questions posed by the people’s representatives. 

CMFR presents a quick survey of media coverage to help journalists fill in the gaps in information as Congress examines and evaluates the proposed 2023 plan for spending the people’s money. 

“Economic Transformation Towards Inclusivity and Sustainability” is the theme of the Marcos administration’s first national spending plan, the 2023 National Expenditure Program (NEP). The proposal made headlines as media noted reactions from lawmakers, workers, and civil society organizations to the proposed PHP 5.268 trillion national budget.   

The figure is 4.9 percent more than  2022’s PHP 5.024 trillion. Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman, whose office oversaw preparations of NEP, named the top five priority sectors as education, infrastructure, health, social protection, and agriculture, which she said correspond to the administration’s eight-point socioeconomic agenda.

After the proposal was officially handed over to Congress on August 22, media mostly followed reactions to  cuts as well as increases, focusing on complaints and questions. Reports remained mostly sectoral and separate, taking up the issues involving one department, or the views expressed by one or another individual. 

As reviewed by the media, agencies and offices with proposed changes in budget are summarized in the following matrix.

Education (PHP 852.8 billion)

As provided by the Constitution, the NEP allocated the highest share of the budget to the education sector with PHP 64.3 billion proposed for it—a 8.2 percent increase from 2022 to support the Department of Education (DepEd), the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).

DepEd, concurrently headed by Vice President Sara Duterte, received a PHP 167 billion increase from last year’s PHP 500 billion to PHP 667 billion. But despite the increase, France Castro, Assistant House Minority Leader and Representative of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT Teachers) Partylist remarked that the amount still falls short of international standards. An August 25 piece from the Manila Bulletin explains that “As per the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Education 2030 Framework, four to six percent of a country’s GDP should go to education.” Castro and her colleagues in the House of Representatives’ Makabayan bloc said that going by this rule, the allocation for education should be PHP 1 trillion. 

Castro also criticized the slashing of support for SUCs and the University of the Philippines (UP) System which will receive cuts of PHP 10.9 billion and PHP 2.54 billion, respectively. She said the move demonstrates the administration’s lack of commitment to education, especially that which  “hones critical and analytical thinking.”

The   Manila Bulletin quoted Rep. Arlene Brosas of Gabriela Women’s Party-list who called attention to PHP 13.9 billion for the repair and construction of classrooms, comparing this to the PHP 429 billion  for building road networks. GMA News Online revealed that the DBM has admitted that this amount is insufficient to build the 40,000 additional classrooms needed by the basic education sector. Brosas also noted that the proposed budgets for building health facilities and housing are only at PHP 23.24 billion and PHP 2.5 billion, respectively.

CMFR’s media monitor has cited reports which referred to studies that show that road building favors mostly private car owners. 

Infrastructure (PHP 1.196 trillion)

The proposed funding for infrastructure makes up 22 percent of the NEP. Rappler reported that PHP 718.4 billion would fall under the control of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). Although DPWH faced a 70-billion decrease from last year’s budget, it will still get the largest share among national departments, according to BusinessWorld Online. 

PHP 1.2 trillion is being sought for the Marcos administration’s flagship “Build, Better, More Program.” The amount covers projects of other departments and sectors such as tourism, agriculture, health, and education. But most of it is earmarked for roads, railways, and flood control. The Department of Transportation (DoTr)’s 122 percent increase translates to a PHP 167.12 billion allocation. Transportation, along with the agriculture sector, received the highest increases in the proposed bill, according to ANC’s report

Health (PHP 296.3 billion)

The proposed amount for health expenditure covers both the Department of Health (DOH) and PhilHealth. While the amount is PHP 27.9 billion more than the previous year’s, healthcare workers decried its deficiency. emphasized the statements of Filipino Nurses United (FNU), which stressed that the amount is still “not enough” to address the health crisis,  specifically the shortage of healthcare workers in state hospitals. 

In addition, healthcare workers also hit the proposal for decreasing the budget of one key health facility — the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). Despite serving as the national COVID-19 referral center, PGH’s funds could lose as much as PHP 893 million. According to PGH workers, the hospital’s budget should have been doubled rather than cut. The Manila Standard quoted  Karen Faurillo, president of the All UP Workers Union-Manila/PGH, as saying that the decrease is “unacceptable” and “worrying.”   

Mindanao Gold Star Daily noted one solon’s displeasure with the move. Rufus Rodriguez, Cagayan de Oro City Representative, called on the administration to restore the funds for both PGH and the UP System, as the cuts would “send the wrong message.” For Rodriguez, both institutions are the “go-to” for the country’s indigent population, meaning the move would hinder access to essential services for the most vulnerable. 

Social protection and welfare (PHP 197 billion)

Government plans to spend PHP 8 billion less on the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), with significant reductions in financial aid for those in crisis. The Philippine Star recalled that think tank and advocacy group IBON disputed Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s statements justifying the cuts. Diokno called pandemic-related ayuda (aid) a “waste of public funds” since the economy has “fully recovered.” For IBON, the funding slash “despite the unresolved pandemic and economic crisis” indicated the Marcos administration’s “insensitivity to millions of Filipinos in distress and its deliberate intent to ignore the country’s glaring problems.”

The group identified other social protection cuts in budgets for families and children, unemployment, and housing. IBON also listed other agencies whose budgets would be reduced: the National Commission of Senior Citizens, the National Anti-Poverty Commission, and the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor.

Arts and culture

ABS-CBN News Online cited a TeleRadyo interview with Brosas who raised alarm over the substantial budget reductions for culture, arts, and history agencies. The lawmaker identified the following:

  • National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) — down 83.90%;
  • National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) — down 27.26%;
  • National Archives of the Philippines (NAP) — down 25.27%;
  • National Library of the Philippines (NLP) — down 22.64%. 

A News5 article also carried Brosas’ criticism of the administration’s “political statement.” For her, the administration has shown that it “does not care about history” and is determined to “conceal the truth from the Filipinos.” Interaksyon added that the NHCP actually sought an increase in funds to restore historical and cultural sites damaged by the July 27 earthquake.

Mindanao “left behind again”

Rodriguez also objected to the PHP 22 billion slashed in funding for Mindanao. The appropriation is down from PHP 650 billion last year to PHP 628 billion. ANC reported Rodriquez’s condemnation of the move, saying that Mindanao was “left behind again.” The lawmaker argued that the cut is unjustified, since Mindanao contributes significantly to the nation’s economy. Moreover, he said, seven out of the country’s ten poorest provinces are in Mindanao. 

Questioning “confidential” and “unprogrammed” funds

Rappler and Interaksyon, called attention to the enormous, over 200 percent increase in proposed funding for the Office of the Vice President (OVP). Under VP Duterte, her office is seeking a PHP 2.292 billion appropriation — a huge jump from the PHP 702 million budget given to Leni Robredo in 2022. One News also pointed out the PHP 500 million sought for “confidential expenses,” an item Duterte’s predecessor did not have throughout her term. 

Aside from the three mentioned above, other media outfits downplayed the significance of the proposed budget spike by simply noting the allocated amount as if such a huge increase does not merit any questions. Later reports from the media merely recorded what the OVP had to say to defend and explain it. These accounts seemed to lag behind, issuing reports on the OVP’s defense and explanation only after it became an issue.

The OVP’s allocation was not the only appropriation hit for lack of detail. PHP 588 billion was classified as “unprogrammed funds” in the NEP. Rappler reported the sentiments of Batangas 6th district Rep. Ralph Recto, who called on the administration to itemize the funds. Recto explained that unprogrammed appropriations are only supposed to be used in specific cases such as “excess revenue collections, new revenue collections, and approved loans for foreign-assisted projects.”

Recto stressed that compliance with this rule has been lax, since in 2020 the full amount of PHP 122 billion unprogrammed funds was released despite low revenue collections attributed to the pandemic. The appropriation becomes even more questionable given Diokno’s revelation that the government intends to take on more debt to finance the 2023 spending plan.

Zyza Nadine Suzara, an expert on public finance and executive director of the Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy (i-Lead) told BusinessWorld Online that departments receiving “avalanches” in funding deserve a closer look. As these “will give us an indication of what the real priorities of the administration [are], and what the succeeding budgets of the Marcos administration will look like.”

The Big Picture 

The national budget represents the big picture of government priorities for the incoming year. Unfortunately, media reports tend to reduce its meaning to lots of figures, instead of presenting it as a road map for how the government intends to serve the people. The budget is an indication of what can or cannot be done — and should be checked not just by politicians and experts but by ordinary citizens as well. It should be made interesting as it is relevant to every Filipino. Every news organization must work to provide this big picture of government’s priorities. Its assessment cannot focus  only on parts of the whole. 

The record of media accounts was collected from different media organizations. While detailing separate issues, the coverage on the whole has failed to present the required overview. The above shows a budget of misplaced priorities on the whole, reflecting huge gaps in terms of understanding the severity of public need in general. 

The public needs to know about the cuts affecting education, social welfare, and public assistance. The country’s economy remains vulnerable, and the pandemic is still a threat. In this light, how should the media present Sara Duterte’s asking for more than two billion for the duties  she claims to have as Vice  President?