The immediate needs of the people in the grassroots level hang in the balance as a result of the Supreme Court decision declaring the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or Congressional discretionary funds unconstitutional, lawmakers said Thursday.
Reps. Leni Robredo of Camarines Sur province, Arlene Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands and Sherwin Gatchalian of Valenzuela City made the disclosure during the Politicians Meet Professors dialogue on good governance hosted by the Jesse Robredo Foundation and held in Ateneo de Manila University.
Robredo revealed that she has already touched base with a state university where she wants to earmark her PDAF so that the state university can grant scholarships for her constituents, as well as thought of establishing typhoon-proof evacuation centers—initiatives which will never materialize at this point as a result of the Supreme Court ruling vs. PDAF.
“I agree that lawmakers have no business of implementing projects, but we need to replace the PDAF system to ensure that those who need immediate help are given help; that they will not be at the mercy of certain officials from the Executive,” Robredo, a neophyte lawmaker, pointed out.
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, each member of the House of Representatives is entitled to P70 million worth of PDAF every year. Of the P70 million, P40 million are for infrastructure projects, while P30 million are for soft projects such as scholarships and medical assistance.
Robredo, the wife of the late award-winning public servant and Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, noted that the pressing needs of her constituents made her soften her stance on PDAF which she initially viewed as a tool for patronage politics and perpetuating political dynasty.
Mrs. Robredo admitted that the reality that PDAF can address the social ills besetting her constituents dawned upon her, considering that the development of Naga City is way ahead of seven other municipalities which also belongs to the third district of Camarines Sur.
“I ran for office against a member of a political dynasty and loathed PDAF because there is too much discretion on the lawmaker. If not for the people who loved my husband so much, I would not have stood a chance because my opponent had PDAF [at their disposal]in the past. But when I won, I saw that PDAF can be a development tool,” Robredo, a lawyer, argued.
She was referring to Nelly Villafuerte, the wife of then incumbent Rep. Luis Villafuerte of Camarines Sur. The Villafuertes have ruled their province since 1978. Mrs. Robredo beat Mrs. Villafuerte by an overwhelming 70,000 votes.
“Naga City’s malnutrition rate is at five percent compared with other seven other municipalities where it is pegged at 20 percent. As for the poverty incidence, Naga City is at 20 percent, but outside Naga, it is 47 percent. I thought to myself, PDAF could have been of use in dealing with these problems,” Robredo surmised.
In light of the Supreme Court’s adverse ruling of PDAF and the wrath brought by Super Typhoon Yolanda, Robredo further disclosed that she has already tried to ask for funding from government agencies to capacitate her district with disaster-proof evacuation centers (including schools) which cannot be washed away by floods—to no avail.
“I asked for funding for the evacuation centers and they refuse to hear me out, saying it is not within their mandate. I went to DPWH, they gave me such answer, I went to other agency and I got the same answer. But the fact remains that the people have immediate needs to be addressed,” Robredo added.
Bag-ao, for her part, underscored that she is also having trouble explaining to her constituents in the impoverished Dinagat Islands that PDAF is not available anymore which could have funded roads and hospitals there.
“In Dinagat, we don’t have good roads and we don’t have hospitals, so there should be a formula on how to address the needs of our districts without us lawmakers having discretion on the fund. To all those who called to the PDAF abolition, give us an alternative here,” Bag-ao said.
“If used properly, PDAF is a tool for empowerment, rather than patronage. Without PDAF, the discretion of projects could go to the Regional Director. What if the said official says, you don’t need this project so there is no fund for your district. The people have immediate needs so we need to institutionalize a system where people can access help,” Bag-ao stressed.
But for Gatchalian, the challenge for the Executive is bigger than the lawmakers because the people won’t have the option of seeking help thru their representatives in the absence of PDAF.
“The Executive should step up in its efforts to address the needs in the grassroots because PDAF was put in place precisely to address poverty. Since they cannot come to us anymore, I fear that these people will resort to asking help from people with vested interests,” Gatchalian added in closing. LLANESCA T. PANTI