By Juan L. Mercado

IN THE wish list of politicians, Internal Revenue Allotments rank alongside Malacanang cash-stuffed envelopes. IRAs are local government share in taxes collected. Our “pols” bicker for bigger slabs. But few heed the yardstick that “to whom much is given, much is expected”.

IRAs now crest at P137 billion, the Commission on Audit reports. When 41,979 barangays’ share is tacked on, the total adds up to P166b. This fund grew by 13.4 percent last year.

The top three IRA “billionaire” provinces were: Pangasinan – P1.1b ;Cebu – P1.06b and Negros Occidental – P1.05b billion, COA says in its “Annual Financial Report” on local governments. City top-notchers included : Quezon – P1.9b; Davao – P1.6b and Manila – P1.2b. Municipal pace-setters were : Dasmarinas and Bacoor in Cavite and Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro. Their shares ranged from P223million to P153m.

Today, 67 centavos, out of every LGU tax peso, comes from IRAs. They help keep afloat poverty-striken provinces, like those in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Sulu, for example, earns only P13.4m a year. Small towns, like Pulas, survive because of IRAs. Income of this Lanao del Sur town, barely came up to P2.01m.

IRAs were designed to give financially-strapped LGUs elbow room to reinforce their local tax base – which would be the engine for development.. They were never meant to be the main financial prop .But the best plans of mice and men can go awry.

Unconditional grants, IRAs carry no performance criteria. And politicians can sniff a blank check a mile away. So, many rigged IRAs into a mini-pork barrel. They charge against this fund anything : from honoraria, entertainment, seminars, etc. The Catholic Bishops Social Action Secretariat assailed use of IRA funds for barangay officials’ “observation or exposure trips”, i.e..junkets. Few bother to give report.

The vital “20 Percent Development Fund” has been similarly ravaged. Twenty centavos, out of every tax peso, are earmarked for unmet basic human needs: potable water, sanitation, preventive health care, nutrition, etc. Instead, it’s dissipated for everything: from executive bands to attendance at conferences

Indeed, IRAs have emerged as the political Viagra. A new city can dip into IRAs. This triggered an epidemic of creation of cities. In 1990, there were 60 of them. Today, we have 131. Cebu alone has nine and Negros Occidental 11. Many can not meet the basic income requirement set by Republic Act 9009: that they earn P100m a year. Income of Silay City is only P6.3m; that of Ozamiz P8.01m.

“Local governments treat IRA as a unconditional dole,” an earlier United Nation study points out. “There’s need to reverse this trend” towards embedded beggary. Local income should, in fact, be higher than IRAs. “An ideal initial percentage ratio between local and national government is 50-50,” UN suggests. In the long run, LGUs should aim for at least a 70 to 30 per cent ratio. Local taxes (should be) the mainstay.

The opposite is happening. Landowning officials freeze updating valuation of land and collecting levies.—from them. IRAs have been perverted into a escape hatch from tough tax decisions..

Taxes on land, last year, increased only by a miniscule 2.8 percent, COA notes. Nationwide, only P12.5b.was raised from real estate levies compared to P12.2b in 2005,. Significantly, real property tax on idle land shirvelled by a staggering 44.4 percent. Guess who’re the speculators who’ve cornered untaxed idle land.

LGUs begging for handouts from gambling have been bloated by 17.4 percent, COA notes.. Pagcor and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes doled out P140.2 million, from P119.5m the previous year.

There’s no shortage of ideas on how to curb today’s plunder of IRAs. Here are a few of them: LGUs must show the color of their money. They should match IRAs with local fund counterparts, the UN proposes. “Providing equity to the grant” will scrub today’s dole-outs. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

After analyzing track records of 20 cities, 28 towns, in 11 regions, an Asian Development Bank conference on “Performance Measurement Systems”. suggested: Pry IRAs loose from its present hand-out mould. Link IRA releases to precise “performance criteria.” No action, no shekels.

Officials should report how they use their IRAs, the Catholic bishops Social Action Committee suggested. A community has the right to know how their taxes were used.

Refile House Bill 7845. This “sets targets with specific time frames for achieving them”. Incentives are given to those who deliver while penalties imposed on those who flub.

This device is most vital for human development needs. LGUs that make demonstrable progress in curbing malnutrition, providing safe water, improved health services, expanded basic education should be rewarded. Those who deny that to people should be dunned

Dock from IRAs an amount equal to cash advances their officials haven’t settled..Unliquidated advances now exceed P1.21b. Prohibit local officials from dipping into IRAs to pad themselves honoraria. The Anti-Graft Law already prohibits such conflict-of-interest decisions.

“Those who pay the piper call the tune”. If the IRA piper can not play new tunes, there’s danger of skidding back to Square One: “Whoever captures the Palace captures the only government there is.”