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‘Sand bagging’ bloats budget

Palace accused of cornering P393b as savings

THE Palace has sandbagged P393 billion in funds that it can declare as savings by the middle of 2015 by inserting bloated items in the national budget, opposition lawmakers charged Friday.

Jonathan dela
Abakada Rep. Jonathan dela Cruz and ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio said the 269 pages of errata that were inserted into the budget, and the redefinition of the term “savings” gave President Benigno Aquino III a blank check “to play around with the P2.606 trillion national budget.”

“The redefinition of savings is a clear defiance of the Supreme Court rulings on the Disbursement Acceleration Program, parts of which were declared unconstitutional by the high court, contrary to the House leadership’s claims that it was in conformity to the SC rulings,” Dela Cruz said.

“The errata opened a can of worms because showed how the sandbagging was being done by bloating the budget without any explanation as to how the allocations would be used,” Tinio said. “Is this what they call transparency in the Aquino administration’s straight path?”

Antonio Tinio
The lawmakers said their suspicion of the sandbagging was confirmed when the House leadership “railroaded” the approval of the budget on third and final reading.

This stopped the opposition from questioning the errata and the redefinition of savings.

Some 198 administration lawmakers, led by members of the ruling Liberal Party and President Aquino’s allies, voted in favor of the passage, 18 voted against, with no abstentions.

“In the game of Poker, sandbagging is to deceive (one or more opponents) into remaining in the pot by refraining from betting on a strong hand, then raising the bet in a later round,” Dela Cruz said.

“In short, the Palace bloated the budget that the President can impound by mid-year in defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling and the definition of savings as funds that can only be realigned by yearend when the agencies have supposedly completed the projects or the agencies have failed to use the amount allocated for such projects,” Dela Cruz said.

Dela Cruz said by redefining the definition of savings, the Palace could get around the Supreme Court ruling that augmentation of funds that did not pass through congressional scrutiny is unconstitutional.

He said the Constitution also clearly prohibits the “cross-border transactions” but that these illegal acts were “legitimized” by the redefinition of savings.

“The Palace is trying to sandbag us by bloating the budget that would be impounded and realigned next year and declare these funds as ‘savings’ that would be under the complete control of President Aquino following Congress’ redefinition of savings,” Dela Cruz said.

Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, admitted that the redefinition of savings would empower the President to impound budgets during the first semester of next year.

Ungab said the redefinition of savings was meant to conform to the recent rulings of the Supreme Court on the DAP and to make the government operations “effective and practical.”

Among the issues that Dela Cruz tried to raise before the plenary but was barred by the House leadership from doing so were the huge allocations for items that did not have details and were thus “sandbagged by the Palace.”

Of the P393.06 billion unitemized allocations, Dela Cruz said the biggest items were the P200 billion earmarked for unprogrammed funds and P118 billion in Miscellaneous Personnel Services Benefit Funds that did not have details.

Dela Cruz said the other questionable and sandbagged items were P2 billion allocation for tablets for 12 government agencies, including the Departments of Health, Social Welfare and Development, Agriculture, Labor, Transportation and Communications and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

The P2 billion, Dela Cruz said, was on top of the P1 billion allocated for the same agencies for e-commerce or upgrading of the IT systems.

“That’s P3 billion for tablets and IT systems that did not have a breakdown as to how many government officials and employees would be equipped with tablets and what these tablets are for. How did they arrive at the amount of P2 billion or P1 billion? How come our 600,000 teachers and non-teaching personnel were not included in being equipped with tablets?” Dela Cruz said.

“How come the DSWD will be allocated additional funds for tablets when it has not submitted audited reports on the previous billions in controversial Conditional Cash Transfer program? It even has P65-billion allocation for CCT next year. The Commission on Audit is really useless, because up to now, it hasn’t audited the CCT programs of the DSWD,” Dela Cruz said.

He said another questionable item was the earmarking of some P3.281 billion in International Commitment Fund for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings next year.

“Why? How many more Iloilo Convention Centers do we need for APEC meetings? Where will the government use the P3.281 billion?” said Dela Cruz, referring to the P700-million ICC project, a pet project of Senate President Franklin Drilon, for which he was charged with plunder and graft and corruption before the Ombudsman allegedly due to overpricing.

The ICC was partly funded by Drilon’s Priority Development Assistance Fund.

Dela Cruz also questioned the allocation of close to P1 billion for “new positions” in the same 12 government agencies that did not carry any list of how many positions were to be created per agency.

“Under the General Appropriations bill, each agency was required to submit proposed budgets for Personnel Services and the new positions were supposed to have been embedded in the agencies but this had been centralized by the Department of Budget and Management that refuses to give us the listing,” Dela Cruz said.

The same goes with the unfilled position, which Tinio said would amount to P15 billion, again with no details on how man positions would be filled.

Dela Cruz said some P118 billion in MPSBF (miscellaneous personnel services benefit funds) was earmarked for pensions, gratuity and retirement benefits of military generals.

“How many military generals would be retiring next year? We have no idea because the DBM keeps us in the dark,” Dela Cruz said.

He said the MPSBF also included the separation benefits of employees that would be displaced under the government’s rationalization program or some non-performing agencies that needed to be abolished.

The other items that Dela Cruz found questionable were the P988 million for the Bureau of Customs; P428 million for NAIA repair; P1.765 billion for the completion of rehabilitation and capacity expansion of the Metro Rail Transit 3; P1.55 billion for overhauling, rehabilitation of the common station of Light Railway Transit 1 North Extension; P977 million for repair and rehabilitation of LRT 1 and LRT 2; and P54.3 billion for the equity buyout of the MRT 3.

“We vow to bring this sandbagging issue and redefinition of savings to the Supreme Court,” Dela Cruz said.

A member of the independent minority bloc on Friday criticized “the undue haste” in passing the 2015 national budget 2015, with billions of pesos in lump sum funds under the Office of the President left unscrutinized.

Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza lambasted the House leadership for banking on the tyranny of numbers to force a vote to pass the budget.

“I fear for our democracy and our democratic processes. Last night, it was not democracy at work when the House leadership railroaded the passage of the 2015 national budget. Only the small committee created to go over the amendments know what these amendments were and the billions of pesos that were part of the errata submitted by the Department of Budget and Management,” Atienza said in a statement.

“All these should be reported to the body and re-discussed on the floor, scrutinized line by line, item by item so the people will know what we are tackling here. We ourselves don’t even know what we are approving here,” Atienza added.

On Wednesday, the House approved on third and final reading the 2015 national budget by a vote of 198-18 vote.

Atienza pointed out that since Monday, there was no quorum and the sessions were adjourned.

“Now, all of a sudden, on the last session day, almost all the congressmen were present and we were given merely one hour to go over three volumes of budget and expenditure programs. Why are they in such a rush to approve the budget? There are still two months before the end of the year, more than enough opportunities to inject transparency and clarity in its approval,” Atienza added.

“Until now, the DBM has not answered our queries as to where the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) funds were allocated. This, even after the DAP was struck down by the Supreme Court! As it is, we have no way of checking if there was no double allocation done since we did not even see the small committee’s report,” Atienza said. With Maricel V. Cruz

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