Palace bid to control Judiciary’s fund questioned
ADMINISTRATION allies in the House and Senate said Sunday they would defy President Benigno Aquino III’s bid to seize control of co-equal branches of government by stripping the Judiciary of its fiscal autonomy and by taking away Congress’ power of the purse in the 2014 budget.
In session. This file photo shows the Supreme Court in session. The high court is in danger of losing control of the P7-billion Judiciary Development Fund. Danny Pata
Senator Francis Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on finance, and his counterpart in the House, Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, said they would study the Palace-proposed special provisions carefully to see if there was a legal basis for stripping the Supreme Court of its control over the P7 billion Judiciary Development Fund and P2.5 billion in allocations for unfilled positions.
The budget also requires the Supreme Court to submit quarterly reports to the President on the status and use of the JDF and other funds, prompting one Sandiganbayan justice to complain about the President’s “fiscal dictatorship.”
House leaders led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and National Unity Party party whip Dasmariñas City Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. said they would not also allow the Palace to take away from lawmakers the right to identify a total of P27-billion in pork barrel projects.
In the 2014 budget, lawmakers are presented with a menu of approved budgets, and cannot depart from the Palace-provided list.
Barzaga and Iloilo City Rep. Jerry Treñas of the Liberal Party said the poorest of the poor would suffer if lawmakers could no longer bring home projects to their districts.
Escudero vowed to “review with much scrutiny” the special provisions in the budget.
“We will hear out the agencies concerned including the Judiciary,” Escudero told the Manila Standard. “We will balance the need for transparency and accountability on the one hand and the fiscal autonomy of certain constitutional offices.”
Ungab, an LP party whip and party mate of President Aquino, expressed reluctance to immediately accede to the Palace’s special provisions.
“I will reserve my comment until after the committee takes up the budget of the Judiciary,” Ungab said in separate interview.
Ungab said the legal infirmities or correctness of the special provisions had to be studied carefully because the fiscal autonomy of the Judiciary was mandated by the Constitution.
“I understand the purpose of the budget is to ensure transparency and good governance. The committee will first study if indeed it encroaches on the independence of the Judiciary as a co-equal branch of government and will make its recommendations when the budget is taken up in the plenary,” Ungab said.
In the House, some 188 lawmakers had used allegations of irregularities in the distribution of the JDF as a ground to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Although Corona had argued fiscal autonomy, the President lobbied heavily and the chief justice was ousted after a three-month trail before the Senate.
Ungab signed the impeachment complaint while Escudero, acting as a senator-judge in the impeachment trial, voted to expel Corona last year.
Under the special provisions, the Palace requires that funds from the collection of legal fees be deposited in the National Treasury and established that 80 percent of the fund would be allocated for the payment of the cost of living allowances and not more than 20 percent would be used for the purchase of office equipment and facilities of the courts where the legal fees were collected.
Another provision shows that the P2.5 billion for 5,725 unfilled positions of judges and staff nationwide and some P42.6 million for the Presidential Electoral Tribunal shall be released “upon actual hiring.”
At least 500 judges nationwide needed to be hired, Corona told the Manila Standard last year.
“The Supreme Court shall submit, either in printed form or by way of electronic document, to the Office of the President quarterly reports on the utilization of said amounts,” the special provision reads.
The payroll of the Judiciary’s 30,912 justices, judges and staff would also be included in the single payroll system.
Even the Judiciary’s paper clips, ball pens, bond paper, folders and other “common-use supplies” would be procured from the wholesale store of the Department of Budget and Management, the provision says.
The Sandiganbayan justice said the Palace was violating the principle of co-equal branches by undermining the Judiciary’s independence.
This, the justice said, was the Palace’s way of compelling the Supreme Court to kowtow to the whims and pressure of the Executive.
Turning his attention to pork barrel, Belmonte said the development funds were important, particularly for far-flung communities and vowed the House would not give up its power of the purse.
Treñas, a member of the LP, agreed and said abolishing pork barrel will “do more harm than good,” especially in the countryside.
But Treñas, at the same time, was willing to make a compromise.
“The pork barrel system should just be tweaked in such as way that it is no longer possible for anyone to misuse and abuse congressional entitlements,” said Treñas, in a statement.
“The wide-scale abuse of the PDAF is totally unacceptable and should be stopped at all cost but we don’t need to abolish pork to do that. What we need is to institute more measures to free it from corruption and abuse,” Trenas said.
Trenas suggested that projects that are funded by the PDAF should be pre-identified for each congressional district in the budget line by line.
This would mean all allocations would be subject to scrutiny, he added.
“In other words if this non-government organization or NGO is named to implement the project, that will be printed in the budget proposal and the public and media have about four months to scrutinize if the NGO is bogus or legitimate,” Trenas said.
Barzaga, in an interview over radio dzBB, said he had already filed a complaint before the ethics panel to have Abakada Rep. Jonathan dela Cruz investigated for releasing an “unsubstantiated information” about 98 of his peers, whom he did not identify.
“Congressman Dela Cruz should be penalized for his careless and sweeping pronouncements against his colleagues because he did not only hurt the reputation of all his peers but also of the institution,” Barzaga said.
Barzaga blamed the Commission on Audit for not doing its job to guard the misuse of public funds.
“Pork barrel is public fund. It is subject to COA audit,” he said. He added that if the COA was doing its job well, the problem of pork barrel abuse would be solved.
“We don’t write checks payable to ourselves,” he said.