By Ariel C. Sebellino, VERA Files
Are things better now for local governments 20 years after the Local Government Code, or Republic Act 7160, was signed into law on October 10, 1991?
Former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr,,acknowledged as the Father of the Local Government Code, believes so.
The devolution of powers from the central government to what are known today as local government units (LGUs) pursuant to the Code allowed every province, city and municipality to chart its own political destiny without the dictates of so-called imperial Manila.
"Monies that were previously collected and disbursed by the central government now go directly into the coffers of local government units," Pimentel said during the celebration of two-decades of the Code at the Philippine International and Convention Center in Pasay City.
"But there are abuses," Pimentel was quick to add. "The looting of public funds does happen unfortunately in some LGUs."
He said that brazen employment of ghost employees for ghost projects and the unabashed bias for favored contractors are glaring examples of abuse of powers that still exist to this day.
"Whatever happened to applicable laws against malversation or plunder of public funds?" he wondered.
He said that stricter Commission on Audit rules must be applied and enforced and to replace COA officials who are either helpless or in cahoots with corrupt local government officials.
Pimentel urged some amendments to the Local Government Code, including an increase in the internal revenue share of LGUs from the current 40 per cent to 50 per cent.
This, he said, will translate into several billions more for the coffers of local governments.
He said that reducing the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) of certain cities that are awash with money also means redirecting the excess funds to municipalities and barangays in dire need of development assistance.
"Rich cities like Makati should spare and share some of their money to poor municipalities," Pimentel suggested.
He challenged local government officials to make budget and expenditures more transparent. He also advised national administration officials not to "tinker with the internal revenue shares of local governments."
"If you have to reduce their internal revenues shares, do so in accordance with the law," Pimentel said.
Governor Alfonso Umali Jr. of Oriental Mindoro, who is president of the League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP) and Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP), agreed with Pimentel's observations.
He said that whereas powers and services were devolved and transferred to LGUs, there are no sufficient funds available to be able to function efficiently.
"LGUs still need revenue-generating powers," Umali stressed. "The Finance Department has to update the Local Revenue Code."
Secretary of Interior and Local Government Jesse Robredo said his department is going the way of full disclosure policy, noting that "they (LGUs) are now more transparent in their transactions."
Robredo said 75 per cent of the 1,600 local government units are now in compliance with "good housekeeping policy," showing excellence in key local governance areas.
"The greatness of this nation rests on the excellence of local government units; hence, LGUs should continuously up their games by improving their competencies and institutionalizing reforms in their systems in order to serve their people well," Robredo said.
He added that local governance is a continuing journey towards excellence. The DILG secretary noted that performance --- measured objectively --- is the basis for rewards, and inability to perform is the basis for penalties and sanctions.
Picking up from his father's suggestion, Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III filed Senate Bill 2987 seeking to increase from 40 to 50 percent the Internal Revenue Allotment that a local government unit gets as its share in the national taxes.
"The purpose of this proposal is to broaden the share of local governments by including as the basis thereof not only the government's Bureau of Internal Revenue collections but also those of the Bureau of Customs as tariffs and the duties, fees and other forms of income collected by the Philippine Ports Authority, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and other government agencies," the younger Pimentel said adding that the bill's passage will translate into more dynamic local government units especially in the area of development of local communities.
The DILG and ULAP led the Code's anniversary celebration with the theme "Local Government Code: 20 Years of Gains Towards A Meaningful Autonomy."
In October last year, the DILG launched "Biyaheng Pinoy: Tapat na Palakad, Bayang Maunlad," a year-long celebration at the local and national level to mark this year's 20th anniversary of the Code and 20 years of local autonomy in the country.
Aside from the DILG, other national government agencies (NGAs), LGUs, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organization (CSOs), the academe, the media, and other stakeholders participated in a series of local governance-related activities.
"Biyaheng Pinoy," the DILG said, "is not just a mere celebration but a continuing journey to every Filipino's dream for an archipelago of good governance."
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")