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Dreamers we have become again

Rep. Neri Colmenares has made us pensioners of the Social Security System dream again of getting a P2,000 across-the-board pension increase after his House Bill No. 5842 was approved last June 29 by the House of Representatives on third and final reading.

Many still do until now, but the skeptics among us have already awakened to the sad reality that this increase won’t be coming.

After all, he was also able to have a similar proposal approved by the House in 2013. The increase then was more modest - the minimum pension was raised to P1,700 from P1,200 for those who have 10 or more of credited years of service and to P3,400 from P2,400 for those with 20 or more. That proposal would also increase again these amounts to P2,200 and P4,400 after three years.

That proposal was approved by the House a few months before the election that year with 185 congressmen voting in the affirmative and no one against.

Sadly, nothing happened to the measure at the Senate. We only speculated that the Senate then was as scared as the SSS with its funding requirement.

We are seeing the same pattern that nothing will happen to the latest approved pension increase. There is no counterpart bill yet at the Senate.

Still, Rep. Colmenares is hoping that both Houses could enact it into law before Christmas, thinking perhaps that pension increases are Christmas gifts that congressional Santa Clauses routinely give away.

In reaction, the Scrooges at SSS have already spoken - almost with finality in the name of fund affordability - that this proposed increase wouldn’t materialize.  With about 1.9 million pensioners to benefit from it, they have estimated it to reach P49 billion annually based on the simple calculation of P2,000 times 1.9 million times 13 months. This amount includes the 13th month pension that is released before Christmas.

Would Rep. Colmenares be a real Santa Claus this time? Or would he be another Francis Townsend, the American pension advocate who popularized during the Great Depression the Old-Age Revolving Pension Plan that came to be known later as the Townsend Plan?

Under this scheme, funds would be generated from a mere 2-percent transactions tax and would be used to pay a pension of $200 per month to every citizen of age 60 and older.  This pension amount was incredibly ten times the average Old Age Assistance benefit of $20 per month at that time.

The Townsend Plan was considered unworkable—at worst, a “crackpot scheme”—yet it helped spur the development of America’s social security program.

Even the great Franklin Delano Roosevelt admitted that –

“The Congress can’t stand the pressure of the Townsend Plan unless we are studying social security, a solid plan which will give some assurance to old people of systematic assistance upon retirement.”

Is the proposed increase of Rep. Colmenares - without an accompanying funding provision - more workable and sensible than the Townsend Plan?

Maybe. After all, its proponent is a certified nationalist who is on his third term as a Bayan Muna party-list representative in Congress. A young political activist who was imprisoned during the martial law regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, he has never stopped working for the public as a champion of the people’s right to reasonable transportation, power and water rates. 

 And yes, we were impressed with how he helped prosecute former Chief Justice Renato Corona during his impeachment trial, expecting that thereafter he would be rewarded handsomely. But no, he didn’t receive any pork barrel or any political concession unlike the other impeachment prosecutors.

Rep. Colmenares has adequate academic education and training. After taking up courses in engineering, economics and law, he proceeded to earn a doctoral degree in law from the University of Melbourne.

He must have learned in Australia of its national pension system of “three pillars” that include a compulsory superannuation. Anyone could get a pension enough to sustain a lifestyle that is comfortably above the poverty line.

Not surprisingly, he authored in the last 15th Congress at least 5 pension bills for members of SSS, the Government Service Insurance System and barangay officials. None of them passed into law except his House Bill 6748 which was approved by the House but was eventually ignored by the Senate.

This didn’t discourage him, however, into re-filing the same bills with some modifications in the current 16th Congress. He again succeeded last June 29 in having the House pass his House Bill No. 5842.

Again, he is publicly appealing to senators to approve a counterpart bill.

But even if both houses would come to agree to approve a pension increase, a more cautious Senate side should insist on adding a funding provision to improve it.

And the only way to do this is via scheduled contribution increases or government subsidies from the General Appropriations Act that are similar to what are now being allocated to PhilHealth, conditional cash transfer, and social pensions.

Otherwise, we all will not wait long before we would experience a nightmarish financial ruin of the SSS.

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