After unveiling his strategy for unblocking investments in public infrastructure, the policy statement of PNoy was drawing flak from all sides. The statement concerned his proposed method for mitigating regulatory risk which was to compensate private investors for any losses caused by legal or congressional action preventing them from charging fees in accordance with their agreements with the government.
This was the statement of Rep Edcel Lagman leader of the opposition in the house:
Government contracts are not inordinately sacrosanct so as to be immune from judicial review by the Supreme Court and police power legislation by the Congress. It is beyond presidential prerogative to shield contracts from final court judgments and valid legislative enactments.
Recalling perhaps the power purchase adjustments that gave power generators the right to charge unmet demand to power users after the Asian Financial Crisis, party-list member Rafael Mariano issued this statement:
It’s hogwash … just a tweak [of the] past administration’s marketing sell-out strategy at the expense of the Filipino people.
The problem with the president’s policy statement goes even beyond these issues alone. Most of these projects have a life of between 15 to 30 years. His administration will only last for the next five and a half. Given the amount of time devoted to the pre-feasibility phase all the way to construction, most of these might still be in the pipeline when PNoy steps down. So even assuming that it is able to defy the two other branches of government, how can it guarantee protection for private investors for the remainder of these projects’ lives?
Second, since the public projects being listed for private participation is based on the principle of user pay per use, they are entirely dependent on the ability to charge an appropriate fee. The fact that many projects such as the Metro Light Rail Transit and Southern Expressway have not been able to do so puts into question the business case that justifies the investment in the first place. In other words, the market for such goods cannot clear at the prices desired by the buyers and sellers.
This puts into question the project feasibility assessment process. All sorts of regulatory and administrative risk factors have to be priced into the project cost. If the government cannot justify them in this manner then it should not put it up for investment to begin with.
On the other hand, if the government sees the need to subsidize these projects in the long run based on some notion of public benefit, then it ought to build projections of its future obligations in forward multi-year budget estimates so that they can be subjected to congressional scrutiny. Such transparency is still missing.
Third, the 10 or so projects in roads, rail, and airports being characterized as “shovel ready” to be bid out next year are in metropolitan centers. The jobs to be generated during their construction are going to be centered there. If the PPP’s are meant to be the engine for development, then it appears to be development highly skewed in favor of city residents.
The problem of joblessness in the countryside won’t be addressed, not in the immediate future at least, not with the initial list of projects. If ever, it will lead to greater migration flows from the rural places to the cities. Somehow, what gets lost in all of this is a development framework wherein the needs of public investment are prioritized based on some holistic model of sustainability.
Despite all this, investor appetite seems to be there. One cannot discount the legitimacy issue that hounded the Arroyo regime which has now been effectively dealt with by a smooth transfer of power. PNoy is right to strike when the iron is hot. Conditions in the global village do support his thrust in leveraging private investment for public use.
Perhaps instead of searching for some quixotic fix to deal with all the bottle necks to our development, we need to take a long hard look at the system as a whole. I am not advocating a shift to a parliamentary system, although that would deal with the problem of congressional oversight since the executive and legislative branches would speak as one. What I am advocating is a roots to branch rethink of our assessment process.
A framework is still lacking in the PPP program. It needs to be more clearly articulated to the public. Beyond that, a strategy for bringing more equitable public and private investments in areas where they are sorely needed, such as in innovation, regional and rural development and natural and environmental conservation, remains elusive.