Power plant issue is a legal matter
Whether or not to build the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (核四) is a technical question requiring more expertise than I possess, so I cannot comment on it. The question of how to repair the damage, however, after a budget has been passed and construction commenced -- and then suddenly halted -- is purely a legal matter. On this issue, I would like to offer a few points for discussion.
\nSome scholars take the view that the power plant budget issue isn't a legal matter. They argue that, because the legislature has given the executive branch the discretion to execute the budget, the decision not to administer the budget, partially or completely, should not be considered illegal. This might be correct, at least with regard to some details of the budget. For example, the budget for the Ministry of National Defense stipulates a personnel quota for the entire armed forces of 400,000. After weighing up the actual needs, however, the executive branch decided to hire only 380,000 military personnel -- 20,000 fewer than originally budgeted -- constituting an obvious reduction in personnel costs. As the goal of the legislature -- national security -- was achieved, the move by the executive branch couldn't be called illegal, and could moreover probably be explained away in the year-end settlement.
\nCompletely failing to carry out an entire plan or budget, however, is a different matter altogether. The budget was originally drafted by the executive branch and thus represents the direction of government policy. Once a law has been passed by the legislature, if the executive branch could choose at will not to carry it out, not only would the legislature have failed to achieve its objective, but allocation of the nation's resources would also be seriously affected. When the US Congress passes a multi-item appropriations bill, if the president feels the bill is unfit, he or she can veto it by refusing to sign it, thus preventing the bill from becoming law. This is similar to the veto procedure for any other kind of bill. If Taiwan's executive branch has the authority not to administer laws that have been passed by the legislature, why would it need the power of "veto," or what Taiwan's Constitution calls "reconsideration?"
\nUS justices once ruled that, where appropriations bills are concerned, the president must either sign the bill or veto it in its entirety, rather than reject only certain parts of it. The justices clearly know that in certain appropriations bills, a minority of representatives might try to sneak in appropriations that would benefit certain electorates -- a big flaw in the constitutional system of government of the US. Still, in order to preserve the principle of maintaining a separation of powers, it ruled not to give the president the authority to veto parts of appropriations bills. Thus, in the US system, the executive branch doesn't choose not to implement mere parts of a budget.
\nGoing back a step, if Taiwan's Grand Justices were to rule that the executive branch has the discretion not to implement a budget passed by the legislature, even those who disagreed with the ruling would nonetheless have to accept it, for the sake of political and legal stability -- just as presidential candidate Al Gore ultimately accepted the rulings regarding the 2000 US presidential election. But any authority not to implement a "budget" should refer to the entire budget -- from the very beginning of the project. In this way, even if legislative objectives aren't achieved, at least no immediate, direct harm would be caused to the nation and the public. Has there ever been any legislation to give Taiwan's executive branch the authority to call a halt to a project and decide compensation issues, despite having already implemented the major part of the budget, with more than NT$100 billion either already paid out or owed? A broad interpretation by the Council of Grand Justices would create serious instability in the government's economic planning, and might even precipitate a crisis. It would also fail to preserve the spirit of the Constitution, under which the Executive Yuan is answerable to the Legislative Yuan.
\nThe cost of construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant was originally listed in Taipower's (台電) budget. The majority of the investment was to be gradually covered by income from Taipower's electricity sales. In this sense, the power plant could have been considered to be self-compensating, as it wouldn't have added to the taxpayers' burden. Because construction of the plant was halted, however, the outstanding payments and contractually-stipulated compensation will end up being shouldered by the entire nation, probably to be paid out by the government in this year's annual budget, or in future annual budgets. The law requires that significant changes of this sort must be reviewed and passed by the Legislative Yuan. Otherwise, a fundamental principle of democratic government -- that the government cannot use funds without the consent of the legislature -- is utterly destroyed.
\nSome may think that the Executive Yuan needed only to order Taipower to halt construction of the power plant, and have it handle compensation in accordance with the contract, treating all the costs as a non-business expense and amortizing it in installments. They might also think that there is no need to draft another budget for the compensation and submit it for legislative review.
\nI feel that this way of thinking does serious damage to property rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Although Taipower's stock is mostly government-owned, in legal terms the company's goal remains the same, to make a profit. The fact that Taipower is government owned doesn't affect its status as an independent legal entity. How then could the government, because of a change in its own policy, use an executive decree to make Taipower shoulder damage of this magnitude? Even if the problem were handled in this way, Taipower's financial record sheet would immediately show huge losses, as well as a drop in its credit rating. Even those banks which have already provided loans quite possibly could -- citing stipulations set down in the contract -- request that the loans be repaid in advance. And there would be no way to get new loans to cover the compensation, as no guarantees for their repayment could be provided -- if the power plant never generates electricity, there would be no income, and most of the equipment would probably be consigned to the scrap heap. And in the next decade or even the next several decades, the portion of Taipower's profits that go back to the state coffers would be drastically reduced. This will ensure that compensation will eventually still become the entire nation's burden. Clearly, avoiding the supervision of the legislature is not the way to handle the power plant issue.
\nFor the ruling party and Executive Yuan to want to stop construction of the power plant is understandable. In the process, however, submitting a "special budget regarding damages and compensation for the power plant" to the legislature, is the only legal, rational, logical path to take. As soon as the special budget is passed, halting construction of the power plant can be considered to represent the popular will. An increase in the public's burden will be seen as unavoidable, and society probably won't make any more noise on the subject. Otherwise, if the will of a small minority is forced through, even if it is done successfully -- the price paid will be difficult to gauge.
\nWang Shao-yu is the chairman of Soochow University.
\n Translated by Scudder Smith
Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.