Budget hocus-pocus begins

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WHILE we were bombarded with news about Senator Leila de Lima’s illicit relationship with her former driver-bodyguard, as alleged by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte, the bill that will largely define the present administration was submitted to the House of Representatives.

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The annual appropriations bill is the single biggest and most significant piece of legislation that Congress churns out. It empowers lawmakers and the President through the prioritization of expenses. The House is scheduled to start public hearings on the budget proposals of government agencies today, Aug. 22.

This time, vigilance in the appropriation and disbursement processes for the proposed P3.35-trillion national government budget for 2017 is more important than in previous years given the record lump-sum appropriations at the discretion of the President.

This is the time when the fine-toothed comb of the Alternative Budget Initiative of the non-government organizations (NGOs) Social Watch Philippines and Freedom from Debt Coalition is most crucial in scrutinizing the budget allocations, particularly those for basic social services like education, health, housing, and food security.

By constitutional requirement, budget deliberations begin at the House of Representatives. The House takes pride in having a “super majority” led by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez from Davao del Norte and appropriations committee chairman Karlo Alexei Nograles from Davao City. Nograles is the son of former Speaker Prospero Nograles, an erstwhile bitter rival of Duterte in Davao politics.

With such a composition, we cannot expect much critical scrutiny of the budget allocations from the House. While the Senate gives some hope for critical collaboration, the President has been attempting to decimate it by publicly accusing de Lima, who has barely warmed her senatorial seat, of sexual indiscretions and links to big-time traders of illegal drugs.

The proposed 2017 outlay that Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno submitted to the House last week includes a whopping P7.6 billion for representation expenses, including for entertainment, and P2.5 billion intelligence fund. Former President Benigno Aquino 3rd had a measly P139.3 million in representation expenses.

The budget for the Office of the President will jump from P2.9 billion this year to P20.03 billion in 2017, with salaries eating up P747 million.

In contrast, the budget for the Office of the Vice President will go down by P70.3 million, from P503.8 million this year to P433.5 million.

Diokno said the huge spending increase under Duterte’s office will be for expenses related to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) activities which the Philippines will host next year, the group’s 50th founding anniversary.

Duterte’s P2.5-billion intelligence fund is five times more than Aquino’s P500 million. The amount is on top of what the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine National Police (PNP) and other agencies are getting.

The proposed P3.35-trillion budget is 11.6 percent higher than the current year’s budget of P3.002 trillion. It will be funded from P2.48 trillion in revenue collections and borrowings of P631.3 billion. The administration projects a deficit of P478.1 billion, which may grow when revenue agencies fall on their targets.

Other significant increases in the President’s proposed budget for 2017 include professional services of P2.1 billion (from P78.9 million in the 2016 budget), rentals of P2.3 billion (from 49 million in 2016), communication expenses of P1.3 billion (from P23.9 million), and travel expenses, P2.1 billion (from P313.2 million.

The most logical explanation for the record increases in the President’s budget is the absence of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), an item that corresponds to the allocation for legislators’ pet projects.

And what’s in it for the poor? Well, the allocation for the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) or Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), the subsidy for the “poorest of the poor” families remains at ₱54.9 billion to benefit 4.4 million households.

Health insurance subsidies for poor families will increase by 15 percent, with a ₱50 billion budget.

The budget is a powerful political tool that any administration can use to either endear itself to the people or build political capital at the expense of poor taxpayers.

With the President’s warning that big-time tax evaders will be the next target of his shame campaign to force them to pay the right amount of individual and corporate taxes, it is hoped that the administration will manage raise collections from the rich and eventually ease the tax burden on fixed-income earners by widening the exemptions and decreasing the tax rates.

Meantime, public vigilance against hocus-pocus in the budget is called for to make sure that the poor taxpayers get the services they deserve from government.

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