SWP to Senate: “Keep 2018 Budget pork-free” | SWP Press Brief Sep 13 2017
Social Watch Phils·Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Amidst the rush to pass the 2018 budget at a trailblazing pace, Social Watch Philippines (SWP) appeals to the Senate to judiciously exercise their power over the purse and to act as fiscalizer of the P3.767-trillion proposed 2018 national budget, especially for unexamined, contestable lump sum budgets. The House period of debate on lump sum funds lasted only about a minute on Tuesday. The House Minority manifested contentment in how the lump sum funds will be spent, and raised no further questions.
With the President certifying House Bill 6215 or the FY 2018 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) as urgent, plenary deliberations at the House of Representatives, which started last September 4, concluded on Tuesday. The House subsequently passed the 2018 GAB on second reading evening of the same day. Approval on third and final reading is expected on or before September 21. Senate Finance committee hearings, meanwhile, are currently being held and will wrap up by the third week of September. In previous years, the budget law is approved by Congress and signed by the President in December.
“Early budget passage doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good budget. Legislators should take time to thoroughly study and deliberate on the budget to ensure that it is truly responsive to the needs of our peoples, and without the excess layer of fat”, SWP convenor Isagani Serrano said. “We are concerned that in the seeming haste to approve the budget, important items that must be scrutinized might be glossed over,” he added.
Lump sums in the 2018 Budget
SWP found that the budget which are usually outside the purview of congressional and public scrutiny are the following: special purpose funds (SPFs) amounting to P524.61 billion, P980.8 billion for automatic appropriations and P75.34 billion for unprogrammed funds. “This means that only 59% of the total budget which amounts to PhP2.269 billion of agency budgets are currently being publicly deliberated because automatic appropriations, unprogrammed funds, and SPFs not usually discussed in great detail,” Dr. Ma. Victoria ‘Marivic’ Raquiza, also SWP convenor, explained.
Serrano said that lump sums indicate an inherent vulnerability in the budget because of limited transparency and accountability. These are also not as detailed and specific as the budget proposals of regular agencies. “Once these are approved, these are vulnerable to reductions, transfers, and ‘adjustments’, he added.
Among the SPFs in question are the P145.75 billion-Pension Gratuity Fund (PGF), P84.45-Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund (MPBF), and the P13-billion Contingent Fund. “While the number of SPFs has been rationalized over time, the size of each allocation increased substantially alongside the national budget,” Rene Raya, another SWP convenor, remarked.
“We pinpoint that the budget for pension and personnel benefits may seem to be overstated, with appropriations amounting to P15.623 billion for PGF and P14.034 billion for MPBF that were unreleased in 2016. The 136% increase for fund subsidies for contingencies is also a cause for concern, especially with the special provision augmenting Presidential travel expenses,” Raya explained.
Raya emphasized that the abovementioned funds can be rechanneled as sources of financing for pro-poor, pro-equality, yet unfunded or underfunded budgets. “Congress should see to it that the 2018 Budget should serve as an equalizer for the poor, the marginalized, the disaster-stricken, as well as those abused and neglected, especially children,” he said.
The pork barrel may still be alive
“The pork barrel issue may still be alive even after the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a lump sum allocation fund found in earlier budgets, has been declared unconstitutional in 2013,” remarked Dr. Raquiza.
“With lump sums still tucked in key agencies, the practice of pork barrel politics remains possible,” she stressed. The agencies referred to are the Department of Health (DOH), Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of labor and Employment (DOLE), Technology Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), and Commission on Higher Education (CHED). Accordingly, there are certain big ticket items in these agencies which may be vulnerable to legislative intervention and serve as possible sources of pork. SWP identified the following questionable lump sum allocations in the aforementioned agencies’ proposed 2018 budgets:
And while various infrastructure projects under Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and Health Facilities Enhancement Program under DOH are fleshed out into specific budget line items, Raquiza emphasized the need for citizens to be vigilant over possible post-enactment intervention that may still happen despite the ruling of the Supreme Court against it.
SWP also pointed out the rise in the Local Government Support Fund (LGSF) which went from P200 million in 2014, to P19.08 billion in 2016, to P39.76 billion this year, and now to P51.27 billion as proposed for the 2018 budget. Bearing some resemblance of the PDAF article, its components contain financial assistance to LGUs, health and social assistance, assistance to municipalities and cities, and grant for repair of provincial roads which covers construction or rehabilitation/repair of local infrastructures but are in the form of a lump sum fund. SWP points out the need to channel these funds to LGUs that need it most, based on a clear pro-poor and pro-environment criteria and with performance requirements in place.
In a statement released to the media, SWP calls on citizens “to be vigilant during the implementation of local projects identified by legislators for inclusion in the national budget during the preparation and legislation phases”.
To be clear, the anti-pork group supports the lawmakers’ stated desire to provide benefits for their constituents. However, SWP believes that the most appropriate way for legislators to do this is by actively participating in the Local Development Councils (LDCs) that are mandated to formulate development plans and public investment programs, in accordance with Sections 107 and 109 of Republic Act 7160 or the Local Government Code.
“Identifying and solving the problems of local people can best be addressed through the collective wisdom of local leaders, including civil society organizations, who are members of the LDCs, and of which the legislators in the House of Representatives are also members of,” the budget watchdog said. “This way, the projects of legislators can better be rationalized within a development framework formulated by local leaders and local citizens,” Raquiza said further.
“We urge legislators to stand up and abide by their mandate to review the budget allocation and put in place mechanisms and amendments that will safeguard people’s money from squander and misuse,” Serrano concluded. (END)
Marivic Raquiza Isagani R Serrano Rene Raya Jeck Reyes-Cantos Janet Crndng
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