In order to shake off a reputation for making empty promises, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration have vowed to follow through on providing free lunches to elementary and junior high school students, as well as insisting that the integration and upgrading of Taichung County and City as a special municipality will take place.
In doing so, the government has requested that a proposed amendment to the Local Government Act (地方制度法) be put on the legislative agenda next week.
The Ma administration should have let these two contentious political checks bounce, but instead it has forced them through — simply to establish its authority.
The free lunch policy appears to enjoy public support, but it requires an annual budget of more than NT$20 billion (US$584 million). By proceeding with this, the government has not only failed to acknowledge social welfare priorities, but it has also aggravated the situation facing government finances.
The promise to upgrade the administrative status of Taichung County and City was part of Ma’s “three cities, 15 counties” campaign pledge, but it will only widen the gap between urban and rural areas and worsen relations between the central and local governments.
A recent piece of worrying news said national deposits over the last decade were concentrated in five counties and cities — Taipei County and City, Taoyuan County, Hsinchu City and Kaohsiung City — which accounted for 76 percent of the total, while in 14 counties, deposits increased by less than 1 percent.
Worse, in Nantou, Chiayi and Taitung counties, deposits have decreased. It is thus of vital importance that the government narrow the gap between urban and rural areas, yet Ma’s policy to integrate Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung counties and cities opposes this.
Taipei County is already a rich county, so if the administrative status were upgraded, it would become even wealthier. The county government would receive NT$150 billion more in funding and could raise debt of up to 2.5 times its annual budget, whereas other counties and cities can only raise debt equivalent to 70 percent of their annual budgets. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer: Those counties that are not upgraded will end up being abandoned by the Ma government.
Compared with its communist counterpart on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the Ma government has reason to be ashamed. In the past, China followed a policy that developed the southern and eastern part of the country, benefiting only part of the population, but it has now realized the importance of balancing the differences between urban and rural areas. In contrast, the Ma government continues to take from the poor to help the rich.
Given the huge differences between upgraded and other cities, those counties abandoned by the government will not give up so easily. Once they start to protest, the government will be on the run.
If Taipei City and County are integrated into a special municipality, its population would make up nearly one-third of the national population, and tax revenues received would account for more than half of the national total. It would not be surprising, then, if a future mayor emulated former provincial governor James Soong (宋楚瑜) and challenged the central government. What kind of situation would the Ma government find itself in then? There could be constitutional implications.