IT WAS only a joke.
This was the explanation of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez offered after he was assailed for threatening to withhold funds to provinces that do not support the administration’s push to establish a federal form of government.
“In a speech, you need to crack some jokes, right?” Alvarez said in Filipino during a TV interview. “That’s all it was. I don’t know why they took it seriously.”
Alvarez made the zero-budget remark during a speech on Jan. 18 before thousands of Iloilo officials who had taken their oath as new members of the ruling Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino.
Alvarez said the supposed threat was actually empty words, because any decision to give zero budget to a province does not rest with the House of Representatives alone, and would need Senate approval.
“How can you make a threat if you know you can’t do it?” he added.
Alvarez also recalled that during the deliberation of the proposed 2018 national budget the House of Representatives gave zero budget to some agencies, such as the Commission on Human Rights, but these agencies eventually received funding after the deliberation of the bicameral conference committee.
Nevertheless, Alvarez said that it was a different matter with respect to the House as the leadership could give zero budget to lawmakers opposed to Charter change for federalism.
Alvarez noted that this was actually done in the past Congresses but in a different manner: The opposition lawmakers were provided funding in the budget but the administration withheld the release of the funds.
Alvarez said he was confident his “joke” would not hurt his credibility as a public official.
Opposition lawmakers hit back at Alvarez, saying a threat to withhold funding was no joking matter.
In a statement, Anakpawis party-list Rep. Ariel Casilao said it was hard to believe Alvarez’s clarification, which he compared to the ever-changing statements of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“It’s difficult to believe in those kinds of reports, like President Duterte who keeps changing his position, but in the end, it is what he wants that is followed,” he said.
“It is not a joke to act like you are giving away government funds,” Casilao said.
Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat said it was sad that the budget for his province had been cut, but more painful to realize that all this had started from a joke.
“It is not a joke to make taxpayers suffer a zero budget because the powerful want to threaten the opposition,” he said in Filipino.