MANILA,  JUNE 14, 2004
BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven  -  Enough is enough. Senator Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel had more than enough of his say in his ridiculous four-hour filibuster. Now heís threatening to oppose, stall, nitpick, and "question" some more Ė in the defense kuno of democracy.

Cut it out, Nene! Letís get this snail-paced canvass finished, over and done with, so at least weíll have an elected President and Vice President proclaimed, rather than have Senate President Frank Drilon or whoever, sitting in for the "interim".

I cannot see how painfully prolonging the process of canvass, owlishly examining every certificate of canvass with a jewelerís eye-piece, will advance the cause of free and fair elections. Instead, this silly zarzuela, which has dragged on long enough, may be the last straw convincing the Filipino people that democracy, the way we practice it, doesnít work, and that perhaps authoritarian government (a concept which was disgraced by Marcosian tyranny and kleptocracy) might not be such a bad idea after all, if we lucked out, of course, and got ourselves a better dictator.

In short, Pimentel and his ilk ought to take a good second look at themselves in the mirror, and figure out whether itís vanity, power-tripping, or just plain stubbornness that motivates them, rather than high purpose.

The same election which he denounces gave Nene Pimentel the unusual honor of getting him re-elected to the Senate, placing number three in the final count, while his fellow KNP opposition reelectionist Senators fell by the wayside. Iím afraid that if we were suddenly to hold another election for Senator, it might be a different story. Owing to his antics, many of those who voted for Pimentel might not repeat their "mistake". I was one of those who voted for Nene, and Iím not saying how Iíd vote next time.

Iím not trying to imply that the Opposition, whether KNP or any of the other persuasions represented in the Congressional electoral committee, should allow the K-4 pro-Administration "majority" to ride roughshod over them. But itís time they all reverted to common sense, shunned petty partisanship, and resolved to complete that irritating "canvass" pronto.

Nothing can move in this country when nobodyís sure whoís going to be President after June 30. Itís time we decided this. Tama na, sobra na! If that phrase sounds familiar, itís because thereís too much ek-ek, dak-dak, and legal mumbo-jumbo in this benighted land of ours. We donít even have the rule of law. What we have is the rule of lawyers.

Whatís this nonsense about questioning the "canvass" because the Senate "adjourned"? Enough legal hocus-pocus and nitpicking already. The public is sick and tired of all this posturing, filibustering, and paranoid ranting.

Pimentel did well in the past when he exposed and fought dagdag-bawas, which he passionately resisted, it must be pointed out, too, because he had been the victim of dagdag-bawas. He must not, in turn, overdo things by grumbling on and on, and paralyzing the canvass by his delaying and dilatory tactics. A reader texted in his impression, with which I must agree. Nene is now engaging in dakdak-bawas.

LetĎs finish this canvass once and for all. This week, not later. The public is not merely growing impatient. Itís getting plumb disgusted.

* * *

There may be a great deal of public resentment over the prospect of the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) talking about raising its rates, but weíre looking at the problem from the wrong direction. How long do you think the government will be able to "promise" cheap power to us, the consumers, if it does not bite the bullet and deal resolutely with the real crisis Ė the coming power shortage?

In case it has escaped our readersí attention, all of a sudden a region-wide power shortage is under serious discussion. (Never mind the question of surging oil prices per barrel, owing to the Nigerian workersí strike, oil field sabotage and the murder of "ministers" in Iraq, terrorism in Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern tensions Ė somehow alternative sources of oil will be found and effectively tapped).

What is proving more worrisome is that demand for electric power will soon outstrip availability in Asia. Take next-door China, which is becoming, thanks to the burgeoning appetite of its rapid industrialization, such as in the automotive and car manufacturing sector, a candidate for power shortages and blackouts in the very near future. Even upmarket Shanghai is already beginning to feel the pinch, not of keeping the Bund, Nanjing road, and its opposite bank across the Huangpo river, namely Pudong, well-lighted, but of keeping the turbines turning and engines humming in its new factories.

Beijing, in short, is in the market for more and more power plants, rated to deliver millions of megawatts more for a nation of working ants numbering over 1.3 billion.

What Iím saying is that if our government doesnít act now, we may face recurring brownouts here in Luzon, even worse than the ones that plagued us during the "rotating brownout" years of 1989-1993 Ė the worst of them, the 14- to 15-hour brownouts experienced during the last year of the Cory Aquino regime.

If youíll recall, everything in that terrible period came to a dead stop. Buildings which required air-conditioning virtually had to be abandoned, because they had become saunas. Factories virtually ground to a halt, with working shifts having to be revised to fit the few hours (three or four a day) in which power could be delivered on a staggered basis. This was hell on earth Ė and youíd better believe it. Those who could afford it had to invest heavily in private generators. (I know, because it cost me a mint to get one installed at home, and a huge one had to be imported to power our schoolís main campus.)

Is this going to happen again Ė with a vengeance? You bet, if the present government doesnít get cracking. Whoís running the present government? Under further notice, itís La Presidente, GMA, of course. And I believe, by this time, sheíll be La Emperadora by the final notice.

* * *

There may be a few dissenting opinions about when the ruinous brownouts will begin recurring if we donít act now, but the common thread is that the forecast shortages in Luzon will come to a critical stage, resulting in rotating brownouts come the year 2007.

What many donít realize is that it requires a four- to five-year lead time to finance and build new power plants (you canít simply go to the nearest supermarket, or even a K-Mart or Walmart abroad, and buy one off the shelf). In sum, we already ought to be witnessing plenty of activity within banking, legal and power developer circles by now if any new plants are to be installed and running by then. But I see and sense no such activity.

What is it that Energy Secretary Vince Perez kept on saying just before the May 10 election? He insisted that there is no power crisis. Vince, now that the election is over Ė even if the canvassing isnít Ė itís time to look again. You may see differently. If, of course, your bi-focals arenít fogged.

Perez had a lot of optimistic reports about several power-generating initiatives, from windmills to geo-thermal in his old kit bag. But words are cheap in the power business.

Thereís a whole world of difference between upbeat press releases from power companies indicating interest in building new plants and actually "putting their money where their mouth is". The failed Transco privatization is an example of this.

The awful truth is that our power industry is in a mess, no thanks to a regulatory environment thatís become so unpredictable and confused because too much ill-advised political interference in regulatory matters from not just one but three branches of government. Not only the executive branch and the legislature, but the judiciary is meddling atrociously. The trouble stems from a highly-charged "populist" climate that pervades our country.

Such a climate frowns on profits made by companies in the supply of public services, and in effect, imposes "subsidized" prices to placate the energy-consuming public and fit what politicians perceive to be the public pocket. If thatís the case, the ultimate burden will fall on the already hard-pressed actual taxpayers.

This populist situation naturally does not encourage private investment in the power sector, and the same is likely to be true in the provision of other basic services and infrastructure.

What this will eventually lead to is government becoming the provider of last resort, compelled to sell power at subsidized rates to the consumer. As said above, this will be at the expense of the taxpayers. For instance, the PPA of the National Power Corp. (NAPOCOR) was cut by P0.85/kwh and capped at P0.40/kwh because politicians and militant groups clamored for blood.

This phenomenon is not to be scoffed at: Johnny Ponce Enrile was elected Senator in his "comeback" try based on his having "exposed" the "exorbitant" PPA Ė which proved popular among the masa. (I know for a fact that my driver voted for him precisely because of that, because he told me why.)

Today, NAPOCOR sells electricity at a huge loss Ė one of the reasons it has been incurring losses amounting to more than P140 billion Ė and that cash deficit is widening year after year. Letís look more closely at it. Over the last few years Ė as was first revealed in this corner Ė the NAPOCOR (NPC) deficit has become the fastest growing contributor to the Consolidated Public Sector deficit. From being only P1.1 billion in 1999, the last five years have been NAPOCORís cash needs growing geometrically and consistently doubling each year since then. For 2004 it is expected that NAPOCOR will need anywhere from P100 and P140 billion of additional borrowings to just compensate for its inability to cover operating costs.

Iíll have more to say about this in future columns.

* * *

In the meantime, let me sum up.

It is already clear, as Iíve declared when I first wrote about NAPOCORís immense and increasing deficits and losses, that the effect of this sector alone on the national budget has been no less than disastrous.

Because the interest expense of government has almost doubled over the past seven years both in absolute amounts and in terms of share of the national budget, almost everything else has had to be curtailed. The education budget is 30 percent less than it was in 1997 and health spending is down to only a third of what it used to be in 1997. Government budgets for basic services are shriveling despite population growth rates that continue to go way past 2.3 percent yearly! Spending on roads and other infrastructure is down to almost half of what it used to be, seven years ago.

The "populism" practiced, in short, by the previous Estrada para sa mahirap government and the GMA-for-reelection Administration has, ironically, depleted the resources the government should be using the "fight poverty". The poor are suffering because of misplaced concern for the poor Ė the subsidy mentality has literacy bankrupted our government.

The alternative of raising taxes to cover up for the runaway deficits of NAPOCOR will only suffocate whatís left of the business sector and drive away any prospect of creating more jobs, much less of attracting foreign investment.

Recently, one of the biggest banking groups got a tax bill from the Bureau of Internal Revenue of over P1.3 billion Ė including "retroactive" taxes. Other banks are receiving such demand notices. The government is, obviously, desperately attempting to collect more taxes.

How much longer can the Administration postpone dealing with the problem of suppressing and subsidizing power rates? If this continues, we cannot hope to entice investors in additional power plants to put their confidence and their cash into our country.

If President GMA gets her renewed six years in office, this may prove an advantage to her Ė and to us. Letís face it. Sheíll no longer face the need to please everybody. She can, if she resolves to do it, embrace harsh reality, and become a President who makes the tough decisions that are needed, no matter what the consequences are to her popularity. She would no longer be seeking re-election Ė but have an eye to achievement and her place in history.

Iím not saying she has already "won" and that FPJ has definitely "lost". But it looks that way. And maybe this is best.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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