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[Editorial] Free lunch war

The Seoul Metropolitan Council has committed a serious violation of law in passing the capital city’s 2011 budget bill. No matter what the reason may have been, the council cannot avoid criticism for its undemocratic practice.

The council, which is under the control of the main opposition Democratic Party, approved the municipal budget of 20.6 trillion won during a session held in the small hours of last Thursday. But before passing the bill, the council’s DP members amended it. While cutting funding for 197 projects by 396.6 billion won, they offset most of the cuts by adding nee items to the bill or increasing the budgets for other programs.

But this was a serious breach of the Local Autonomy Act, which requires a local legislature to obtain the consent of a local government head to increase the sum of any item of expenditure or create new items of expenditure in the budget submitted by a local government.

The council’s DP members ignored this clause to allocate funding for schemes backed by the party, especially its signature project ― a free lunch for all elementary, middle and high school students. They set aside 69.5 billion won for this plan without the nod of the city’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon.

The city council’s DP members attributed their transgression to the mayor’s stubborn refusal to cooperate. Oh has adamantly opposed the plan, denouncing it as “a populist program under the disguise of welfare that would ruin the nation.” But this excuse hardly justifies their illegal behavior. By flouting law, they not only undermined the legitimacy of their free meal scheme but set a bad example for other local legislatures.

Following the passage of the budget bill, Mayor Oh declared he would not execute the portion of the budget that was increased without his consent. He is right to do so. Otherwise, he would allow the council to infringe upon his rights.

Oh further said he would seek a court injunction against the ordinance the city council approved last month to provide financial support for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to expand its free school meal program. The education office, also controlled by the DP, plans to offer free lunches to all elementary school students in Seoul this year with the support of the metropolitan government.

But according to experts, including professor Jun Ki-sung, director of the Ordinance Clinic Center of Hanyang University, the ordinance has many clauses that either run against the Local Autonomy Act or are unreasonable or loosely written. This suggests that the rule, if implemented as it stands, is likely to stir up conflicts and controversy over its legality.

According to Jun, the most serious drawback of the ordinance lies in its supplementary provisions that effectively set the start date of the new school meal scheme at 2012, not 2011. If the rule is strictly followed, he said, there cannot be any kind of school meal program this year. Hence, Jun advises the city council to abrogate the poorly written statute and write a new one.

The city council’s DP members need to heed this advice. They should not overreach themselves to achieve their free lunch plan. If they do, it will only backfire. It will not be long before they realize this.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a free lunch, as the saying goes. To offer a free lunch to all students, some of the city’s projects must be sacrificed. The council’s DP members chose to kill the mayor’s pet projects. But such an emotional and mean action will serve no useful purpose.
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