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‘Irmaring’

Early this week, Hurricane “Irma” devastated the Florida coastline, immediately followed by Tropical Depression “Maring” which flooded our streets in Metro Manila. And that explains my column title today.

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The saga continues for my fellow veteran of the GMA-Corona wars, Atty. Larry Gadon. Yesterday the House committee on justice ruled that his impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Sereno was “sufficient in form and substance” to deserve a hearing. Sereno has thus been given 10 days to reply to the first of his allegations.

The committee vote was 30-4, with opposition predictably coming from 3 LPs—all with leftist backgrounds—and one certifiable leftist from Bayan Muna. If they wanted to, the administration allies in the House had enough votes to send the complaint immediately to the Senate, seeing as they were able to muster 119 votes on another issue: To defund not just one, but three government agencies.

However, it seems that Speaker Alvarez wants Sereno to begin to answer for her actions already. This is a courtesy I hope she will appreciate, as this also gives her the chance to begin clearing her name early. How the Senate may later vote on the impeachment is still up in the air, since the administration apparently doesn’t intend to throw billions of pesos at the senators the way PNot did against the former CJ Corona.

But an inkling may already have been given by Senator Kiko Pangilinan, who denounced Atty. Gadon’s complaint as a ploy to “destroy the justice system.” I’m eager to hear the good senator explain exactly how this impeachment of Sereno destroys the justice system, while an exactly similar—and in fact procedurally inferior—impeachment of Corona only five years ago served to save the system.

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The earlier-mentioned House vote to authorize a budget next year of only one thousand pesos each for a number of government agencies provoked a lot of criticism. But almost all of it concerned only one of them, the Commission on Human Rights.

On performance grounds, this puzzles me. One of the three, the Energy Regulatory Commission, regulates the entire power industry: What could be more serious than that? I understand that a major problem of ERC is the lack of knowledgeable technical and commercial experts who really understand the industry, and an excess of lawyers.

As for the third one, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, they are responsible for all the indigenous populations in our country, a substantial number that also happens to be quite noisy. Ask any developer, not to mention government officials involved with power and infrastructure, how much trouble the IPs can cause.

But it is CHR that has hogged the limelight, simply because human rights are the permanent issue du jour for activists abroad and the opposition at home. Under its current chairman, who used to be PNot’s deputy political adviser and the secretary general of the Liberal Party, this commission has rarely filed human rights cases if at all. They’ve been content to serve as a hound dog of the opposition, encouraging irresponsible criticism even from abroad.

The Senate minority leader, Senator Drilon, branded the defunding as “constructive abolition” of a Constitutional body. Most of the senators, including administration allies, are likely to join him in forcing a deadlock, followed by a re-enacted budget for 2018, if this issue isn’t settled in bicam.

In the end, the CHR and those other agencies are likely to get their budgets after all, and things will revert to normal. But this face-off will be a timely waker-upper for hold-overs from the ancien regime who may forget that they ought to focus on performance these days because they remain in office only on sufferance.

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Clearly the above lesson was not learned by all the dodos who ran the AFP-PNP retirement pension system into the ground. As a result of their irresponsibility, the system now has to be bailed out by the GSIS, which estimates a total of SEVEN TRILLION pesos needed to do the job.

That’s a lot of pain to be shouldered by the taxpayers alone. In fairness, much of the burden will have to be shared by future, and even existing, pensioners among our men and women in uniform. We haven’t seen the innards of the problem, but we’ll wager that it includes the following:

Large unfunded pension liabilities, most probably compounded by actual negative equity, i.e. technical bankruptcy.

An underperforming investment asset base that can’t generate enough operating cashflow to cover pension expenses plus overhead, nor enough net income to cover pension accruals and build up equity.

An actuarially unsound operating structure that will require the following reforms: (i) Eliminate automatic indexation of benefits to current salaries; (ii) Perhaps convert to variable (instead of defined) benefits based on investment performance; (iii) Mandatory contributions by plan members; and (iv) Increase pensionable age from the ridiculously young 56 years at present to the standard 65 years or even older.

Existing pensioners may have to agree to take a haircut on their existing payments. This will be widely resisted, of course. But perhaps they will respond to appeals to their patriotism, as well as concern for the younger men and women who’re still in active service and deserve their pensions no less in the future.

Because bad governance and management was clearly the main culprit, the AFP-PNP pension system may be taken over by GSIS, but should be operated as a separate business vehicle. This will limit government’s equity exposure and will also open up room for additional investments even from private insurers and asset managers, both here and abroad.

A professional management company may need to be brought in under contract, with government participation limited to board-level governance.

It’s time to think out of the box before we throw trillions of pesos at this problem. Our servicemen and women and their families deserve no less from us.

***

In closing, let me congratulate my fellow UP alumni on our alma mater being the only Philippine higher education institution to make it to the Times’ list of top 1,000 universities worldwide (in the 601-800 rankings). We also ranked between 201-250 in the list for Asian institutions alone.

This is of course bitter-sweet news for us, since the whole point is for as many Philippine schools as possible to enter that magic circle. Improving the infrastructure for building world-class minds should command priority in the administration’s Build Build Build program.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: ‘Irmaring’
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