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Agenda item for 2012

By JUAN L. MERCADO, johnnylmercado@gmail.com
December 16, 2011

Call this the “Deadbeat Bill”. When Congress reconvenes after the Christmas break, it should make time for House Bill No. 2009, despite the impeachment trial for Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona. If approved into law, the measure could help stem today’s flood of government officials who welsh on settling cash advances.

Failure to settle, within a whittled-down period, becomes “prima facie proof of malversation of public funds”.  That’d call down jail terms and fine for deadbeats.

Cash advances that national government officials failed to settle exceeded P4.8-billion in 2005 alone, says bill author Pasig City Rep. Roman Romulo “This is a disturbing situation… What about the succeeding years to the present?”

Consider the advances that then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took out for foreign and local travel.  In 2009, the Office of the President exceeded P594 million allocated by Congress for this purpose. Worse, over P367.3 million in cash advances for travel remained unliquidated as of August 31 this year, Commission on Audit records show.

“Efforts to identify officials, who whelshed on payments, were hampered, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. admitted.  Lists of those who traveled with the President were not available. Some former disbursing officers quit.

National officials do not command a monopoly on this reluctance to pay back what government advanced.  Flip through the latest Commission on Audit’s latest annual financial report on Local Governments (Vol III).

This documents an epidemic of local officials, thumbing their notes at government bill collectors. The contagion cascaded from Tugegarao in the north to Tawi-Tawi in the south, from Palawan in to west to Samar in the East.  Here are some telling excerpts from the auditors:

On the western Philippine flank, Puerto Princesa city accumulated a staggering P180.4 million worth of unliquidated advances. That whooper is the biggest bill in all 136 cities.

In eastern Philippines, Samar racked up P25.8 million in unpaid advances. Calbayog City outstripped that at P59.9 million.

Up north, unliquidated cash advances in Tugegarao City amounted to P5.77 million. Management proved lax “in monitoring their liquidation.” It shied away from clamping on sanctions such as “withholding of salaries to settle cash advances.  Of P836,207 disallowed, only P73,167 was paid.

In southernmost Tawi-Tawi, unliquidated cash advances totaled P2.3 million. And Marawi City granted cash advances even before previous releases were settled. Unliquidated cash advances in Zamboanga Sibugay climbed to P34.4 million.

Surigao del Norte accumulated P43.8 million worth of IOUs because previous bills were not settled.   Cotabato City’s bill stood at P31.8 million.

“A small debt produces a debtor,” the Roman author Publius Syrus once noted. “A large debt creates an enemy.”

How big are the IOUs of local government officials? The latest COA does not provide sum totals.  You can, however, guess the bill by looking at the number of LGUs.

As of today, there are 43,356 cities, provinces, towns and barangays. Can we say: Each one, without exception, has unsettled bills with with Juan Q. Taxpayer?

“We have to resolve this issue”, Rep. Romulo said.  HB 2009 would amend Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code. It would thereby stiffen the curbs that Presidential Decree 1445 already imposes on cash advances. How?

First, it’d make refusal or failure of a public officer or employee, to settle cash advances, prima facie proof of malversation or misappropriation of the fund received.

Second, the Bill would clamp on tougher penal clauses.  Persons who dodge settling cash advances “shall suffer the penalty of perpetual special disqualification”. He may not get a government job. Nor can he run for public office.

Third, there would be a jail term too. ”Depending on the amount involved, the penalty of imprisonment ranges from prision correcional to reclusion perpetua.

Fourth, there will be stiffer fines too. Official found guilty must cough up a sum “equal to the amount of the funds malversed or equal to the total value of the property embezzled.

Capacity of LGUs, however, is sapped by its failure to collect what should be its main financial prop, namely real estate taxes.

Flabby collection by LGUs has now ballooned unpaid real estate taxes to P1.29 billion, says the Commission of Audit.

An analysis of audits conducted on 81 provinces, cities and towns, reveals “failure of LGUs to intensify collection efforts,” notes COA in it’s latest financial report on provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays (Vol III).

Local officials shrink from clobbering real estate tax deadbeats. Often, these belong to political elites.  Yet, administration of judicial sanctions are available.

High time LGUs revise obsolete assessments on land. The treasurer’s list of delinquent taxpayers should be published. More important “enforce remedies” to collect overdue levies.