Keeping an eye on 2014 budget

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Tita Valderama

Tita Valderama

AFTER the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the multi-billion peso Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and other lump sum items in the annual budget of the national government, and with political groups already gearing for the next elections, we should keep sharper focus on how the administration will spend the P2.26-trillion budget in 2014.

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The High Tribunal’s decision is clear. The role of lawmakers in the budget-making process ends when they ratify the General Appropriations Bill. The Senate did so on Wednesday last week. The House should follow suit before it adjourns this week for a month-long Christmas break.

It means senators and congressmen cannot take part in implementing projects after they have provided funds for those. Implementation phase belongs to the executive department.

The Supreme Court decision put an end to the long-held practice of allowing each senator to have at least P200 million and each congressman P70 million at their disposal every year, for as long as the projects and activities funded fall under a “menu” prepared by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

It likewise stopped the flexibility to use bigger lump sums at the disposal of the President for partisan political purposes.

The Supreme Court decision clearly delineated the powers of the executive and the legislative in the budget process, in line with the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

It thus becomes imperative for the citizens to be more watchful against abuse and misuse of the budget. Keeping an eye on the budget is a critical role civil society groups, non-government organizations, and the public must exercise if we are to make sure that the taxes taken away from our pockets are judiciously used.

There is abuse when the budget is used as a tool to court political support. There is misuse when the Malampaya Fund is used to reconstruct privately-owned power grids in the Visayas, or to subsidize Meralco consumers and jeepney drivers to enable them to cope with rising prices of electricity and diesel.

Before the 2014 budget is presented to President Aquino 3rd for his signature, there are some serious provisions that budget experts have warned about being unconstitutional, as well as in the P14.6-billion supplemental budget for the reconstruction of areas hardest hit by super typhoon Yolanda.

While Congress removed the P25.2-billion PDAF of lawmakers, the amount was not actually taken out of the budget but merely distributed to the Commission on Higher Education, Department of Interior and Local Government, Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Public Works and Highways, and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.

The P14.6-billion supplemental budget, sourced from the lawmakers’ unused PDAF this year, will be tapped to augment calamity funds and to rebuild areas devastated by recent calamities.

In a recent forum on the pork and other perks in the budget, UP Prof. Benjamin Diokno, budget secretary under two previous Philippine presidents, said the separate appropriation measures suffer from constitutional infirmities, noting a provision that prohibits Congress from increasing the budget proposed by the President.

Congress removed the PDAF, and used the amount to increase the budget of the seven agencies for employment, scholarship, medical assistance, and relief activities.

By appropriating the unused PDAF for this year to augment the calamity fund, Congress is drawing funds that had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, he said.

Diokno, who served as budget undersecretary during the Cory Aquino presidency and as budget secretary under former presidents Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, cited Section 25, Article VI of the Constitution that says: “The Congress may not increase the appropriations recommended by the President for the operation of the Government as specified in the budget. The form, content and manner of preparation of the budget shall be prescribed by law.”

Another UP Prof. Leonor Briones questioned the validity of the budget process where the bicameral conference committee no longer tackles the disagreeing provisions in the Senate and House versions of the budget bill. The process had been cut short by asking the bicameral conference panel members to submit their proposals and only the chairmen of the Senate finance committee and the House appropriations committee meet to reconcile differing provisions.

Briones served as national treasurer during the Estrada presidency.

Despite the Supreme Court decision against lump sum budget items, Briones noted that the President still has under his control some P283 billion under the Special Purpose Fund (SPF); P40-billion direct remittances from other agencies; P846 million intelligence funds; and P139-billion unprogrammed funds.

Briones said unprogrammed and off-budget funds come from P2 billion annual revenues from the Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), P26 billion from the Malampaya Fund, and P12 billion from the Motor Vehicles Users Charge (MVUC).

In view of the “creative” transformation of the PDAF in the 2014 budget, Diokno said, “PDAF is alive and kicking; it’s just hidden in six agencies of government.”

Briones butted in, “The battle is not yet over. We may have won the battle in the Supreme Court, but not the war on lump sums.”

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