Aquino’s pork roasted

Critics tag it ‘mother of all pork’; bigger ‘People’s March’ up A bigger and stronger Million People March is being planned to press President Benigno Aquino III to give up P310.1-billion in discretionary funds that critics described as “the mother of all pork barrels.” “The next Million People March will be bigger, broader, multi-sectoral and stronger,” said Vencer Crisostomo, chairman of Anakbayan and one of the organizers of Monday’s protest rally which drew an estimated 100,000 people to Luneta Park.
Protest continues. Students of St. Scholastica’s College in Manila hold a noise barrage against the pork barrel on Wednesday. Danny Pata Protest continues. Students of St. Scholastica’s College in Manila hold a noise barrage against the pork barrel on Wednesday. Danny Pata
Crisostomo said a second protest action was inevitable because the public was outraged when the Palace tried to rationalize the off-budget President’s Social Fund, saying it came not from taxpayers but from gamblers, through the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. He added the protests would continue until the President gave up his own pork barrel. Reacting to the criticism, the President said he is open to itemizing the P5.2 billion President’s Social Fund, but said he found calls for its abolition illogical. “We are open to that (calls to itemize PSF),” Aquino said in an interview during the sidelines of the 8th East Asia Conference on Competition Law and Policy in Pasay City Wednesday. “But did you notice that no one is saying that the PSF has been abused? But they want it abolished. I could not understand the logic of such calls for abolition,” the President added. But former national treasurer Leonor Briones, lead convenor of an alliance of some 100 civil society organizations called Social Watch Philippines, said they would join the next protest rally because the President’s claim that he had no pork barrel was untrue. Briones, who said the President’s discretionary funds were “the mother of all pork barrels,” said these were “invisible” in the national budget. For example, she said, the lawmakers’ P27 billion in pork barrel for 2014 is included in the President’s P310.1-billion Special Purpose Fund, which is a lump sum appropriation. Briones called for complete and immediate abolition of the President’s pork barrel. “We are being treated like babies given pacifiers, while the fundamental problems are not being addressed,” Briones said. Briones exhorted the public to challenge the President’s political will to end corruption through a total abolition of pork barrel and special purpose funds in 2014 national budget. “It is time for citizens to be very militant against illusionary reforms on the budget and lack of political will to end corruption,” Briones said. “The government has been changing how the pork barrel is called – from Congressional Development Fund to Congressional Initiatives to PDAF. Now, they are saying it is abolished but the funds remain as an allocation to congressmen,” Briones said. She said the President’s new plans still include handing over P27 billion to the congressmen, the release of which can be based on the “sole discretion of the President” while congressmen will have the sole decision which projects will be implemented. “The fund remains a political tool, highly prone to corruption and aggravates inequity,” Briones said. “Those who are not allies of the President may not receive the pork barrel even if the congressional district is very poor and in dire need of funds to uplift the quality of people’s lives,” she said. Meanwhile, she said, congressmen would give priority to projects in their bailiwicks, not necessarily in poor communities that need it most. “The pork barrel is just a portion of the P310.1 billion special purpose fund, which is full of vague budgetary allotments. This includes billions of allocations for budgetary support to government corporations, allocation to local government units, miscellaneous personnel benefits fund, retirement benefits fund, and priority social and economic projects fund,” Briones said. Briones said the National Expenditure Program showed the President having sole discretion over P1 trillion, which includes budgetary support to government corporations, P45.7 billion; allocations to local government units P19.7 billion; the Calamity Fund, P7.5 billion; the Contingent Fund, P1 billion; the Education Department’s School Building Program, P1 billion; the e-Government Fund, P2.479 billion; international commitments, P4.8 billion; miscellaneous personnel benefits fund, P80.7 billion; the Pension and Gratuity Fund, P120.5 billion; the Priority Development Assistance Fund or lawmakers’ pork barrel, P27 billion; and a feasibility studies fund, P400 million. Briones said legislators should concentrate on passing laws and exercising oversight duties, not on carrying out projects in local areas. Marivic Raquiza, a convenor of Social Watch, said the internal revenue allotment of poorer provinces should go up. “The national allocation of funds should be based not only on broad national development concerns; but it should promote redistribution. That is the role of a strong development state. We do not need pork to uplift quality of life in poor provinces,” she said. Jessica Cantos, another SWP convenor, pressed for the ratification of a freedom of information (FOI) law, noting that pork accounts for only 2 percent of the national budget. “Abolishing PDAF without the transparency and accountability mechanism that we want in place for citizens to use will just leave us a bit better off but no meaningful reform would take place. With FOI, patronage politics for all levels of government can be tempered,” she said. Briones said special purpose funds weaken the ability of departments and agencies to strategically program spending because the Congress-approved budget becomes distorted. The amount allocated to agencies to deliver services to the poor becomes smaller because other funds for programs they are supposed to implement are lodged under the special purpose fund, she added. Social Watch also urged citizens and lawmakers to review the “invisible” budgets that are not included in the General Appropriations Act, including remittances from government-owned and -controlled corporations such as Pagcor and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. “If the President is sincere with his “Straight Path (policy)” he will abolish these budget items and use them for long term social service and poverty alleviation programs,” Briones said. “Billions are hungry, homeless, jobless, out-of-school, and have no access to health care here. All we need is political will from the President so that the funds will be used to serve the unserved and reach the unreached,” she added. Also on Wednesday, Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez demanded an extensive special audit of pork barrel and lump sum funds allotted to the President, his officials and his allies going back to June 30, 2010, when Mr. Aquino assumed office. Romualdez, the head of an independent minority bloc in the House of Representatives, urged the Commission on Audit to refrain from doing a selective audit on pork barrel in the interest of transparency and accountability. Earlier, the COA released a report on alleged pork barrel abuses from 2007 to 2009 but left out the first three years of the Aquino administration. “Why audit only 2007 and 2009? Is COA diverting the public’s attention and the media attention back to the previous administration?” Romualdez said. On Tuesday, Romualdez demanded the resignation of COA chairman Grace Pulido-Tan for the “irreparable” damage she had done to some members of Congress and to the institution itself as a result of errors in her report. He said that the COA chairman did a disservice not only to former Compostella Valley Rep. Manuel Zamora but also to Congress by coming out with raw reports that were full of errors. But administration ally Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. defended Tan, saying demands for her resignation “might be interpreted as intended to muddle the real issue of the pork barrel scam.” “Instead of asking Tan to resign, we should praise her and her COA auditors for having the courage to conduct the special audit even if the adverse findings involved senators and congressmen. It was courage that her predecessors did not have,” Barzaga said. In the Senate, Senator Joseph Victor Ejersito dared the President to give up his special purpose funds. This, he said, would show his sincerity in carrying out reforms that benefit the nation. Senate Pro Tempore Ralph Recto warned, however, that scrapping the P7.5 billion calamity fund on suspicion that it is presidential pork, would be a real calamity “Itemizing the budget is premised on the ability to accurately predict events or pinpoint occurrences with precision. But in the case of the Calamity Fund, how can you predict when and where a typhoon will pass and the damage it will cause?” Recto said. If the fund is abolished, Malacañang would have to go to Congress for relief funds every time a typhoon strikes, Recto said. “So if we are hit by 20 typhoons, then the Palace will go to Congress 20 times for money that will take months to approve for aid that is needed immediately.” The President on Wednesday said he would make public where the President’s Social Fund, which is managed by the Presidential Management Staff, has been spent. “I will authorize the PMS to release to public where we have spent the PSF over the three years that I have served as President and how the PSF has increased during our term because of our careful use of it,” Aquino said. Aside from the PSF, Malacañang will also not let go of the lump sum special purpose funds, which stand at P957 billion this year. “The Special Purpose Fund, by its very name is self-explanatory. These are funds really, by their nature, could not be itemized,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in an earlier interview. “If we itemize these, and then there is an unforeseen event, expenses cannot be programmed under the SPF and we can actually be liable for malversation if we do it that way,” she said. – With  Joyce P. Pañares, Maricel V. Cruz and Joel E. Zurbano
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