Is the pork barrel back?Today, the Blue House announces what infrastructure projects the government plans to exempt from the required preliminary validity survey before their implementation. The exemption targets 33 projects amounting to a 61.25 trillion won ($54.7 billion) budget — including the construction of highways, railways and airports — that 17 local governments requested the central government approve without preliminary checkups. In a New Year’s press conference, President Moon Jae-in raised the issue of exemptions to help develop relatively underdeveloped regions for a balanced national development.
Moon based his decision on the need for balanced regional development and economic recovery. No doubt our local economies are much worse than Seoul’s. However, is the exemption really the best way to achieve that goal? The preliminary survey was introduced in 1999 to assess the effect of infrastructure projects costing over 50 billion won without wasting money. We are perplexed to see the government take the lead in the setback.
A considerable number of local infrastructure projects that have been pushed without the preliminary survey ended up failing, as seen in the case of the four-river restoration project in 2009 and the construction of Formula 1 circuits in Yeongam, South Jeolla, in 2010 under the Lee Myung-bak administration. The four rivers are ridiculed for turning into a “green algae latte” and the F1 race tracks are in ruins. The exemption is nothing less than pork-barreling at the expense of taxes. The government can hardly avoid the suspicion that it is bent on getting votes in the election next year.
It is not yet clear how many of the regional infrastructure projects will be exempted from preliminary scrutiny. However, according to an analysis by the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, the amount is estimated to reach 41.52 trillion won. If you add that sum to the 29 trillion won already exempted by the government, that’s on par with what the Lee administration exempted during his term. As an opposition lawmaker, Moon criticized the administration whenever it kicked off a massive social overhead capital (SOC) project. He even vowed to not start any civil engineering projects to stimulate the economy.
If he breaks his promise, how could the government secure the legitimacy of its budget execution down the road? It will not only force the central government to dry up its coffers, but also lead to a lax work ethic among local governments. The government must consider its priorities before announcing what it will exempt.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 29, Page 30
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