MANILA,  July 9, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva  -  The Arroyo administration sought divine intervention yesterday to help it address the ballooning budget deficit and threat of a "fiscal crisis."

Before starting the weekly meeting at the Palace, the deeply religious President Arroyo joined her Cabinet in a prayer specially composed by Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin.

The budget deficit, which for the first five months of the year reached P77.4 billion, topped the Cabinet meeting agenda. For the month of May alone, the country incurred a budget shortfall of P12.6 billion. The government has projected a budget deficit of P200 billion this year.

"Lord God, we seek your help in ensuring that the budget will balance before the President’s term ends," Boncodin prayed.

The budget secretary was referring to the third item in Mrs. Arroyo’s 10-point "legacy" program which the President vowed to accomplish in her next six years in office.

"Most of all, we pray for our President, that she may accomplish her third legacy with the wholehearted support of Congress, her Cabinet, the government force and the Filipino people," appealed Boncodin.

She recited specific prayers on how the government’s deficit woes will be addressed, such as for Congress to "see the light" in passing badly needed revenue generating measures.

"We pray for enlightenment from our legislators," Boncodin said, invoking them at the same time to "refrain from passing new laws" which the government "cannot fund."

She implored the Cabinet to always work within available means in getting their jobs done.

"We pray for perseverance and creativity for the members of the Cabinet, that we may all successfully find ways to live within our small budget allocations and still deliver results expected of our agencies," she asked.

For government officials and employees, who are particularly known to receive lowly salaries, Boncodin appealed for "understanding" from them. "That they not always ask for increases in benefits at the expense of services to the general public," she said.

"We pray for the goodwill of the people, that they may pay their taxes honestly and not expect doleouts from government all the time," she prayed.

The President’s economic team has been working out a slew of revenue-enhancing measures that included proposed legislation of new tax measures. She will certify these tax bills as urgent to the incoming 13th Congress.

These tax bills include the increase in "sin" tax on liquor and cigarette products, and a shift from net to gross income taxation.

The unpopular proposal to tax text messaging has been set aside for the meantime.

Boncodin sought to downplay a "fiscal crisis" scenario within six to 18 months that Albay Rep. Joey Salceda has warned about if strong measures are not implemented immediately.

Salceda, a top economics student of Mrs. Arroyo when she taught at the Ateneo School of Economics, made this warning as the government’s deficit problems for the first semester of this year continued to rise even as it remained below the P200-billion ceiling previously set by the administration.

Boncodin pointed out that the Arroyo administration was able to hurdle a much higher budget deficit in 2002.

In fact, she cited the deficit level has been going down since then due to the "fiscal discipline" imposed by the government for the past three years.

"We have not reached that (fiscal crisis) stage but precisely it is what we are trying to avert," the budget secretary said.

With the country’s debt in the trillion peso level, Boncodin admitted these new taxes are the bitter pills that have to be considered to help cure the budget deficit.

Aiming for a balanced budget, the President has promised during her inaugural speech "a government that will live within its means and put every spare peso to real work. I pledge to reduce spending where government doesn’t work and increase spending where government can make a difference for the better."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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