Temas Especiales

18 de Jan de 2021


The last time they decentralized

Panama's system of government is way too centralized. Ask any mayor, of any political party. On the provincial levels, the governors are...

Panama's system of government is way too centralized. Ask any mayor, of any political party. On the provincial levels, the governors are presidential appointees and occasionally the representantes from all districts within the province get together and decide where the road maintenance and building funds that they get from the national government will be spent. Provinces have no revenue sources of their own.

The municipal governments have more powers that the provinces but way too few sources of revenue, which are inadequate and in some cases destructive.

A few years back the Supreme Court threw out a sensible initiative by the national government to remove many of those ugly and sometimes dangerous billboards from our main roads, because the taxes on these signs are one of the few sources of municipal funding.

Abstractly, it makes sense to turn many of the urban infrastructures and services over to local governments.

Building permits, buses, taxis, streets, storm drains and sewers are handled locally in most places and could be done here, too -- but not on the resources that our cities presently can muster.

Every time the nation's mayors meet, they call for decentralization. Sometimes the national politicians say that they will move in that direction.

Back in 1994, that politician who flaunted a fake doctorate, "Dr." Ernesto Pérez Balladares, actually did something about it in the last lame duck days of his administration. He transferred the national government's solid waste collection and disposal functions to local governments, without giving them corresponding powers of taxation.

His decentralization allowed for privatization, which happened in most places other than Panama City.

In the capital jobs that had been PRD political patronage posts under an outgoing PRD administration remained as PRD sinecures under the PRD mayor who took over.

There have been some arguments over garbage truck contracts and complaints about poor collection services -- which were by and large caused by rivals inside the PRD and losing bidders obstructing the purchase and delivery of new trucks. The mayor got blamed, I think unfairly.

In almost every city where there was privatization, there was hard-core corruption in the awarding contracts, horrible service and accumulation of garbage along the roadsides when people who couldn't or wouldn't pay for the service just threw their wastes where they could. The rats loved it. Few of the original contractors are still in business.

Now the PRD is headed for a crushing defeat on a national scale, but may hold onto a few city halls, and the Martin Torrijos administration has a decentralization law in the works.

Not, however, of the usual city things --- they want to transfer health care, public education, and the water systems to municipal governments. They won't be transferring the power to raise funds to support these services, but will delegate the power to privatize them.

Yes, Panama's government needs to be decentralized. We need a new constitution that divides powers and revenue streams in a holistic fashion. However, this privatization move, aimed like the solid waste decentralization was at putting public services into politically connected private hands, is an insulting response to a reasonable and long standing public demand.