The government unveiled next year’s budget to be proposed to the National Assembly for approval, and it is 6 percent less than this year’s total expenditure, when including supplementary budgets. No supplementary budgets were drawn up yet for next year. It is the first time in 13 years that the government budget bill is smaller than its total expenditure a year earlier. The government said the belt tightening was intended to curtail the ballooning fiscal deficit. This is the right direction.
National debt surged explosively under the President Moon Jaein administration. It made no effort to spend sparingly. The debt, which was 660 trillion won ($49 billion) in 2017, is estimated to reach 1,100 trillion won late this year. Now is the time to cut back on spending to restore the deteriorated fiscal soundness. Cutting back expenses is easier said than done. And yet the Yoon Sukyeol government should try to find unnecessary and nonurgent items and remove them together with ruling and opposition parties.
The central government’s education funding is a case in point. The Yoon administration has earmarked 101.84 trillion won of its 639 trillion-won budget bill for next year to the Ministry of Education. It is the first time for the ministry budget to exceed 100 trillion won. Of the 100 trillion won, the ministry has allocated 82.43 trillion won to kindergarten, elementary and secondary education. Under the budget plan, it will secure 77.28 trillion won of the amount from statutory funding to education district offices.
The government is required to set aside 20.79 percent of its total internal revenue unconditionally for public education funding. The Yoon government, expecting next year’s tax revenue to top this year’s, increased the mandatory education funding for next year by 18.8 percent, or 12.22 trillion won, from this year. On the other hand, it allocated a total of 12.13 trillion won to university education.
The figure is merely up 2 percent, or 236.5 billion won, from this year. Despite the shrinking school-age population, the ministry increased budget support for kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools much faster than that for universities. The education funding program started in 1971 to promote a regionally balanced education development. It played an important role in providing universal education to the people including baby boomers.
But as time passed, it faced challenges from a changing demographic, such as a declining birthrate and rapid aging. A significant portion of internal tax revenue ~ total taxpayer money except for tariffs ~ has been allocated each year automatically for education funding regardless of the number of students. As a result, education district offices and schools except for universities have money to burn.
The Seoul education office plans to stockpile as much as 73 percent of the 3.73 trillion won it will receive as part of an additional education budget funding that comes automatically from the government’s recent supplementary budget. The office apparently decided to set it aside for a rainy day because it could not find where to use the mounting pile of funds. The Seoul council rejected the office’s budget proposal.
The Busan and Gwangju education offices reportedly proposed to reserve 91 percent and 69 percent of their respective additional education funding from the latest supplementary budget. Obviously, this is a waste of tax revenue. The anachronistic system must be mended. The National Assembly must find similar wasteful programs hidden in the budget bill and fix them.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 5, 2022, issue.