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[Editorial] Who pays?

On Thursday, the main opposition Democratic Party convened a general meeting of its lawmakers to adopt free child care and halved college tuition fees as part of its platform. The party’s leadership expected the lawmakers to endorse their plans without objection, since they have already approved the proposals for free school meals and free health care.

But the DP leaders faced an unexpected backlash from a group of lawmakers with expertise in government budget and policymaking. These critics, including Reps. Kim Hyo-seuk, Chang Byoung-wan and Kang Bong-kyun, embarrassed the DP leadership by pointing out problems with the party’s funding schemes for its welfare package.

The DP estimates the four proposals in its welfare package ― free school lunches, free medical services, free child care and cheap college tuition ― will cost the nation 16.4 trillion won a year. It said these projects can be financed without introducing any new taxes. To the critics, the funding plans hardly sounded realistic or reliable.

Rep. Kim Hyo-seok said the DP’s free welfare service plans would not help the party win public support unless they are backed by solid funding schemes. Rep. Chang Byong-wan, a former minister of planning and budget, warned introducing new welfare programs would put the nation on the path to fiscal ruin, since Korea’s welfare expenditure is bound to surge without any expansion of the current system.

Rep. Kang Bong-kyun, a former finance minister, challenged the party’s strategy to make free welfare services the rallying cry for the next general and presidential elections. He argued the biggest issue in the 2012 elections would be how to maintain fiscal soundness, not welfare expansion.

Faced with these criticisms, the party decided to set up a task force to draw up a detailed funding plan. But the backlash did not stop the DP leadership from pursuing the free welfare strategy. On Friday, party chairman Sohn Hak-kyu stressed the need to beef up housing welfare, indicating the party would include a housing program in its growing welfare package.

The DP leadership is convinced that the free welfare platform would bring them success in the next elections as did the free school meal plan in the local elections last year. But they need to heed the warnings from the critics that unreliable welfare plans could boomerang against it. It will not be long before the public realize that free welfare programs are actually not free but paid by the taxpayer in one way or another.
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