Diokno: Senate fund realignments in order

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ECONOMIST and former Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said he finds nothing wrong or irregular with the realignment of funds by some senators prior to the enactment of the 2014 General Appropriations Act.

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“Strictly speaking, the role of Congress is to cut, not increase, the budget as prepared and proposed by the president. By tradition, what Congress has done was to propose amendments to the president’s budget, by reprioritizing some spending items, provided that the total president’s budget is not exceeded,” Diokno told The Manila Times.

He was reacting to criticisms hurled against nine senators who realigned their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to government agencies. The PDAF system was previously outlawed by the Supreme Court (SC).

Those who realigned what used to be their “pork barrel” funds were Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Lito Lapid, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., and Antonio Trillanes 4th who realigned P200 million to government agencies. On the other hand, Senators Ralph Recto, Allan and Pia Cayetano, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and Joseph Victor Ejercito transferred their PDAF to the Calamity Fund.

Contrary to some sectors’ assertion that the move was at the very least unauthorized, Diokno, an expert in budget matters, explained that what the lawmakers did was not against the High Tribunal’s ruling.

“For as long as these adjustments are done during the budget authorization phase of the budget process, then it’s compliant with the recent Supreme Court ruling on the pork barrel. The SC ruled that it is unconstitutional for legislators to participate in the execution of the budget,” the University of the Philippines professor stressed.

The Court deemed as unconstitutional the practice of lawmakers under the pork barrel system “to intervene, assume or participate in any of the various post-enactment stages of the budget execution, such as but not limited to the areas of project identification, modification and revision of project identification, fund release and/or fund realignment unrelated to the power of congressional oversight.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Francis Escudero earlier noted that did not commit any “post-enactment intervention” and that “from Day One, I said we will respect the individual decision of each senator on the PDAF.”

Escudero recalled that during their caucus on the matter they unanimously agreed to respect the individual decision of each senator on his/her PDAF.

The issue got worse when it was found out that Estrada assigned P100 million to the City of Manila, where his father, former president Joseph Estrada, is currently mayor.

Besides Manila, Estrada realigned his “pork” to Caloocan City and Lal-lo town in Cagayan province with P50 million each.

Escudero defended the move, saying there was no “insertion” and that it was an “amendment” by the young Estrada.

“This is very transparent. We did not hide anything in the budget. This is an amendment by Jinggoy,” Escudero said.

Diokno served as Estrada’s budget chief from 1998 to 2001. He agreed with Escudero as he stressed that the realignments were done when the budget measure was still being discussed by Congress.

“What Senator Jinggoy Estrada has done proposing to assign the P200 million to Manila Caloocan and [Lal-lo town], and which was subsequently accepted by the bicameral conference committee and finally approved by both Houses of Congress is in order,” he stressed.

“I assume he did not specify how the funds will be used and how they will be implemented,” Diokno added explaining that had Estrada “dictated” how the funds would be spent then that would violate the SC decision.

He further said that the P100 million for Manila will be treated as the city’s additional income and only the city council can authorize its release.

“The correct procedure is that the grant to the LGU will be treated as additional income and will have to form part of the revenues of the LGU concerned. The local chief executive will then propose a supplemental budget to the local council for its authorization,” Diokno emphasized.

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