[Opinion] Over-rewarding our officials

It is perfectly legal but not because it is legal, it is ethical or moral. The dictum “not all legal is moral and not all moral is legal” easily comes back to mind as public debate intensified over the release of P1.6-million by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile from the so-called “savings” of the senate to 18 selected senators.

First branded as “Christmas gifts” and later clarified as additional amount for MOOE (maintenance, operations and other expenses) of senators, government people are referring to this annual year-end exercise as a “time-honored practice”. This is the reason why most government employees whether in the senate, congress, or in local governments are enthusiastic at the last quarter of every year especially with the Yuletide season drawing near because bonuses from savings will be distributed.

The employees under government offices which enjoy the Constitutional protection of “fiscal autonomy” are highly anticipating the distribution of this largesse at the end of the year for it is considered as “bonus” and not as additional MOOE. How will an office of a senator utilize an additional MOOE amounting to P1.6-million by the month of December when a new set of MOOE budget will be made available in the succeeding year?

If the amount is genuinely intended as an additional MOOE budget, then how come the amount released per office of the senator was not distributed evenly? Four senators received only P250,000 each while the majority received P1.6 million.

Former National Treasurer Leonor Briones, who also served as a national president in the early years of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, puts into context the debate over the so-called “savings” in the wall post of the Social Watch Philippines in the social networking site Facebook.

Prof. Briones shared that the various government offices in government and constitutional offices and institutions have different levels of discretion and their ‘fiscal autonomy’ allows them to utilize their savings. The charters of government corporations also allow these institutions to maintain a similar practice unlike regular government offices which require recommendation from the Dept. of Budget and Management (DBM) and approval from the President before these offices can utilize their savings.

Furthermore, Prof. Briones explained that this is the reason why “the senate, congress, staff of constitutional bodies and corporations tend to have more perks and benefits on top of what is allowed the clerk, the driver and the division chief in regular agencies.”

From the explanation of Prof. Briones, we are being made aware that the offices of our elected senators and congressmen enjoy a higher level of discretion in the use of people’s money while regular government agencies are strictly limited and bound by the strict regulatory policies of the DBM.

The public uproar over the reported largesse distributed to senators revealed that the people are not totally aware of the different levels of discretion as far as utilization of people’s money is concerned.

This “time honored practice” is not only true in the higher levels of government offices; it is very much an acceptable practice in local government offices. The distribution of bonuses from savings has become a norm in local governments wherein officials have become financial experts by exercising innovative practices to have better control of budget appropriations assigned for their respective offices in order to arrive at surplus budget at the end of the year.

Similar to senatorial or congressional offices, local governments also enjoy the pleasure of having some level of fiscal autonomy wherein elected officials are allowed to request realignment of unused appropriations or to revert back to the general fund under-utilized MOOE budget in order to use it for personnel expense or staff salary. This is an item in the budget where elected officials can have internal control.

I know of some reliable staff by elected officials that deliberately set aside savings from their office expenses for the purpose of having funds intended for bonuses of staff and extended workers. There are indeed offices that require more staff especially with the bulk of work that they have to attend into including committees that they handle. Yet there are also offices that enjoy the same level of budget allocation even if they have lesser workload.

The facts are obvious and they point out that there is inequality in government benefits. There is also the problem legitimizing discretion over public funds by providing selected offices with “fiscal autonomy”.

This might be legally justifiable but to utilize savings for staff bonuses for over-rewarding public officials who are already enjoying the security of having millions of pesos in salaries, benefits and perks is unethical and immoral.

The election season is upon us. I’m not sure how long will the voting public continue to tolerate this seemingly legitimate malpractice of utilizing savings for bonuses by their senators, congressmen, mayors, vice-mayors and councilors. In the same manner, how long these so-called “reformists” in elected positions in government will continue to close their eyes over this unethical and immoral practice.

As a people, we must remember that it is our vote that provides them the power to exercise discretion over public funds.

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