March 2, 2024

■  Rimaliza A. Opiña 

Lawmakers who sponsored the bill for an autonomous Cordillera region will face more hurdles in terms of having the proposal approved as the national government’s finance officials informed the region’s representatives the government at present has “limited financial space.”

In a forum at the workshop organized by the National Anti-Poverty Commission in Baguio City on Nov. 16, Baguio Rep. Mark Go informed the participants that in the position paper of finance officials composed of Department of Budget and Management Sec. Amenah Pangandaman, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno, and Socioeconomic Planning Sec. Arsenio Balicasan, the budget being asked by the Cordillera to finance the operation of the autonomous region was way above what they can provide in case both Houses pass the bill.

Go said the increased allocation of local government units as a result of the Mandanas-Garcia ruling, the close to P70 billion annual block grant for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, allotment for bills that have been passed but could not fully take effect because funds have not been allotted yet to make the law operative, and payment of foreign debt were among the reasons cited why it will be difficult to allot the funds needed to make an autonomous region in the highlands, function.

Block grant, or state subsidy, is a financial assistance given by the national government to the regional government.

Go said while it is not improbable to allot the funds being asked, the finance officials offered a counter-proposal, which is for the national government to devolve more functions to the regional government such as the Education, Health, and Agriculture departments.

“Kasi OK sa kanila na i-retain ‘yung mga national offices pero ‘yung supervision should already be with the regional government. More funding means more devolved powers and responsibilities,” Go said.

Go said the economic manager also informed him that the country will only have better financial outlook in 2029.

Go and Kalinga Rep. Allen Jesse Mangaoang said this predicament should not be a deterrent in pursuing the quest for autonomy. The former said the national government and the Cordillera lawmakers can meet half-way if they are able to give the costs of operating a regional government. 

Both said they will submit amendments to the bill to incorporate an estimate budget of how much it will cost to operate an autonomous region, distribution of the block grant, investment options using the block grant, and regional taxation.

Go said the National Economic Development Authority has previously submitted a budget estimate but this is with respect to salaries and wages only and does not include overhead and other miscellaneous expenses.

Also to be studied is the option for provinces that do not vote for autonomy to later join the autonomous government.

Mangaoang also suggested to re-strategize the campaign for autonomy. From the grassroots campaign, he said lobbying should shift to Malacañang in order for the President to certify the bill as urgent.

Mangaoang said the Cordillera representatives will pursue a third attempt despite autonomy being rejected twice.

“Let us try for the third time; if it does not pass, then let it stay in the Constitution to be pursued again in the future,” he said.