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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 4)

All News 07:15 August 04, 2021

Populist move
Governor hit for universal relief scheme

Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung has triggered controversy by floating the idea of the provision of universal COVID-19 relief. Lee said Sunday that he was studying ways of granting aid to all residents of his province. His move contradicts the Moon administration's decision to make relief money available only to people in the bottom 88 percent of the income bracket.

Lee, one of leading presidential hopefuls from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), came up with the universal handout scheme five days after five mayors in the province called for the provision of relief to all residents regardless of their income. Now, he is seeking to spend the province's budget to pay half of relief grant, while asking each municipality to pay the other half.

It is hard to understand why Lee is pushing for such a plan, especially after the National Assembly passed a 34.9 trillion won (US$30.3 billion) extra budget bill July 24 to finance a new relief package for individuals and small businesses hit hard by COVID-19. The bill calls for the provision of 250,000 won to each individual belonging to the bottom 88 percent income ladder. This means the top 12 percent would not receive state relief.

The passage of the supplementary budget bill, the second of its kind this year, was based on bipartisanship between the DPK and the main opposition People Power Party. The Moon government initially sought to give relief money to 50 percent to 70 percent of the country's 51-million population in order to make those bearing the brunt of the pandemic recipients of state aid. But the DPK pushed for universal provision in an apparent bid to woo voters before the March 2022 presidential election.

However, the Ministry of Economy and Finance strongly objected to the DPK's move. Then, the government and the ruling party agreed to meet halfway by increasing the proportion of the recipients to 88 percent. Yet critics denounced the agreement as a populist move which ignored concerns about soaring government debt and deteriorating national fiscal soundness.

Against this backdrop, Lee's push for universal relief is seen as noting but populism. An estimated 400 billion won worth of the province's budget should be set aside if Lee puts his idea into action. He said Gyeonggi Province can foot the bill for the additional costs. However, seven major cities such as Suwon, Seongnam, Bucheon and Ansan expressed their opposition, citing a lack of municipal funding.

Gov. Lee argued that it was against the spirit of the Constitution to exclude rich people and high income earners, who pay more taxes, from the relief package. But he has drawn criticism from both ruling and opposition lawmakers who have accused him of trying to mobilize his province's budget to rally his supporters behind his leftist causes and boost his presidential bid. His move has also raised the question about fairness because there is no reason to allow only his province universal relief provision. Lee should retract his populist scheme immediately.

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