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‘War on pork’ looms

Solons resist Palace plan to control funds Congressional allies of President Benigno Aquino III warned Thursday of a major clash with the Palace over its plan to seize control of their pork barrel, amounting to P27 billion next year, effectively stripping them of the power to identify which projects to fund. “This is war. We won’t accept the Palace’s dictates just like that,” said one ranking House official in the President’s own Liberal Party, but who asked not to be identified. “They are clipping our powers to decide what projects are needed in our districts. What do they know about what my constituents need?” “Now we understand why the P10-billion pork mess was floated in the media,” he continued, saying that this gave the Palace an excuse to strip Congress of the power of the purse. “This will give them complete control of the total P27 billion in pork barrel funds. Control of the budget will be centralized in the Palace. What happens to checks and balances? We will oppose this. Aren’t they content with the powers they have that they want ours, too?” In a news conference Tuesday, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad acknowledged that the P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014 was not prepared “in the usual way” because it would do away with time-consuming paperwork, including the Special Allotment Release Orders (SAROs) that are traditionally needed to release funds to projects endorsed by the lawmakers. “The five volumes of the national budget is now the SARO or the agencies’ budget matrix. There is no need for the congressmen to follow up with the Department of Budget and Management because this budget [follows the] Budget-as-Release Document regime in 2014,” Abad said. Abad said this means the budgets of agencies, except those in a negative list, are considered released to them as soon as the national budget is enacted. He said the budget now no longer contained lump sum budgeting but a menu of projects from various agencies, which proposed hard and soft projects for all districts nationwide. “All that the congressmen would do is look at the list of projects and claim them. Everything is now in the budget. Their projects are there. It would save them a month of making follow-ups with DBM,” Abad said. After the news conference, Abad told Manila Standard making lawmakers choose from a menu of projects cleared by the Palace did not strip them of their right to identify and endorse projects. “No. We are not doing that. They can still identify and endorse the projects. These projects are even posted online. For example, under the DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways), the infrastructure projects per district were listed there [in the budget] and all that they have to do is choose which of the projects that they have already identified had been listed and claim them. Under the DA (Department of Agriculture), the number of hectares of lands they wanted irrigated or farm-to-market roads and so on, down the line,” Abad said. He said the Palace was taking the new budget approach to meet its target of “inclusive growth” up to 2016, when the President leaves office. Former House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman, author of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel pamphlets and resource speaker for the four-day lecture-series for the 64 neophyte lawmakers, said these projects were chosen in consultation with the departments’ respective district engineers and agencies. “The lawmakers were asked what kind of projects their constituents need even before it [the budget] got printed. The only lawmakers who were not consulted were the 64 neophytes because they were not congressmen yet. The ones who consulted were their predecessors,” Lagman said. For this reason, Lagman said the Palace should allow congressmen the leeway to realign the budget. “That’s why I exhorted the new congressmen to reclaim Congress’ power of the purse. The Palace in the previous Congress had usurped that power. The President should not expect that his budget should be approved like it was cast in stone. The Palace should allow cuts and realignments. It should be reminded that as far as the budget is concerned, the Palace proposes, Congress approves and disposes. Congress should not be the Palace’s rubber stamp,” Lagman said. House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. this early gave assurances that the House would speed up the deliberations on the budget to avoid a reenacted budget. He also said that like the previous Congress, the budget would be approved “without cuts.” But some reelected lawmakers said they were not consulted as to what projects they wanted to identify and endorse for their district. In the past, Abad said, congressmen would complain about delays in the release of funds. Now, all they have to do is look at the prepared list of projects in the budget, submit their choice to the Budget Department and they are considered approved. “We can save time and resources,” Abad said. “That’s why we have taken pains to require all agencies when they submitted their budget to [specify] a list of projects, their location and the corresponding cost. That way, we will be able to execute the budget early,” he said. Bidding on the projects would also be held early, Abad said. This year, he added, the Public Works Department has already bid out more than 80 percent of its infrastructure projects in the first quarter. “The benefit of that Mr. Speaker is we can in fact advance the implementation even of our 2014 infrastructure program if necessary, and I think that is going to happen,” Abad said when he submitted the budget to Congress Tuesday. Abad acknowledged that the speaker and the leaders of the House as well as the Senate and the Executive were going to propose reforms on the way the pork barrel is used. “The direction really is to limit discretion,” Abad said, adding that they would also take into account the findings of the Justice Department, which is leading an investigation into allegations that some lawmakers funneled their pork barrel to bogus ghost projects in exchange for kickbacks. The 2014 budget includes a P27-billion allotment for pork, which is a special line item, Abad said. “What the Aquino administration introduced is that the whole and complete PDAF is in the budget unlike in the past,” he said. But Abad said Congress and the Executive department have not yet agreed on a policy on the pork barrel of party-list lawmakers and senators, whose constituency is nationwide. Each congressman has discretion over an annual P70 million allocation for pork barrel. Each senator is allotted P200 million. Belmonte earlier appealed to his colleagues to strictly follow the menu of projects identified in the budget. He also urged party-list lawmakers to come up with a plan on how to spend their development funds. Senator Alan Cayetano voiced his approval of the Palace plan. “That was what I have been talking about—that the pork barrel be included in the national budget,” he said in a text message. With Maricel V. Cruz and Macon Ramos-Araneta
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