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No such thing as a free lunch

May 24,2018
Free school uniforms, feminine sanitary napkins, bus fares for the elderly and residential solar panels are just a few examples of what candidates from all sides — ruling, opposition and independent — have promised to voters ahead of the June 13 local elections. Welfare benefits have always been popular on the campaign trail, but the thing on offer are becoming ridiculous. The promises are made not just by the candidates for gubernatorial and mayoral posts, but education superintendents who should be responsible for schooling, not welfare.

Lee Jae-myung, former Seongnam mayor now running for Gyeonggi governor, vows to extend the benefits that made him popular in Seongnam to other parts of the province by offering free gift tickets worth 25,000 won ($23) to young residents, school uniforms and subsidies for postpartum care.

Kim Tae-ho, a Liberty Korea Party (LKP) candidate vying for South Gyeongsang governor, offered to supply free school meals, a policy that used to be strongly protested by the former governor and current LKP head Hong Joon-pyo, as he runs against Kim Kyoung-soo, a close confidant of President Moon Jae-in. It is hard to tell who is from the progressive or the conservative camp in the race for education chiefs as every candidate promises something for free — even commuting fares.

Nobody seems to care about where the money would come from or how much it would cost taxpayers at the end of the day. The financial self-sufficiency ratio of local governments averages 53.4 percent, and more than half of them cannot even pay their employees with their own budgets. Free school meals for public middle schools cost 3 trillion won this year, and if they are extended to high schools, at least 1 trillion won more is needed.

Freebies are appealing. But voters must remember that they will end up paying the bill. Voters must teach candidates a lesson that they are not foolish enough to buy into these reckless promises. The candidates will finish the registration process this week and begin campaigning from next week. Voters must examine their campaign platforms carefully. What is free now will be paid for in the future.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 23, Page 30