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Lawmakers question withheld P135-B DPWH funds

Lawmakers on Tuesday, September 22, questioned the decision of the executive to lodge "For Later Release" (FLR) over P271 billion of the current Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) budget, with half of it no longer available this year.

At the budget hearing of the DPWH at the House of Representatives, several congressmen questioned the decision to place infrastructure projects under FLR and include these instead in the proposed DPWH budget for 2021.

Public Works Secretary Mark Villar explained that some P135 billion worth of infrastructure projects would no longer be funded in 2020 as these had become part of the anti-coronavirus war chest.

"The For Later Release, the portion of the projects that were not funded – because some of the funds were used for COVID-19 – was allocated in the 2021. So the unfunded portion in 2020 will be proposed for 2021," Villar told lawmakers in a mix of English and Filipino.

When President Rodrigo Duterte signed the P4.1-trillion 2020 General Appropriation Act, he did not veto questionable items in the budget – some of which were alleged congressional insertions. Instead, Duterte placed them under the "FLR" category, requiring additional documents to justify their release, which were eventually for the approval of the Office of the President.

Given that the 2020 budget did not have provisions for the unexpected coronavirus pandemic, emergency legislation had to be passed to fund government response. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act allowed the government to discontinue projects of various agencies and have these proposed within the next two fiscal years.

Under the DPWH's 2020 appropriations, the program was adjusted from P580 billion to P430 billion. For 2021, the public works department is proposing P666.47 billion in new appropriations.

During the hearing, congressmen tried to sway the DPWH into having the items classified "FLR" to be made available, but Villar could only dodge the ball to Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado, who was not at the hearing.

"Only [Secretary] Wendel can really answer when. Based on our talks, he's saying, at this point, I know for a fact, that they are very aggressively doing the paperwork and readying for the release," said Villar.

Asked by Nueva Ecija Representative Michaela Violago whether all of the FLRs could be released next week, Villar said: "I will give a more detailed [schedule] when I talk to Sec Wendel."

Double appropriations?

Leyte 3rd District Representative Vicente Veloso III pointed out that including 2020's unfunded FLRs in the 2021 budget would tantamount to "double appropriations," which is unconstitutional.

"The FLRs weren't funded? They have to be funded because that's mandated by the Constitution, by the law. But if we include that again [in 2021] because it wasn't funded in the 2020 budget, we are treading on dangerous ground. We will become principals by indispensable cooperation, if not by direction participation," Veloso said in a mix of English and Filipino.

On the possible unconstitutional move – which had been raised by Senator Panfilo Lacson during budget deliberatinos at the Senate – DPWH Undersecretary Eduardo Ramos cited the Bayanihan Act as the basis for allowing discontinued items in the 2021 budget.

"We will abide by the Constitution. The Bayanihan Law is also clear, and until and unless it's declared by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, our mandate in the executive is to implement the law…. There's a presumption of constitutionality of the law," said Ramos.

'False hopes'

Cagayan de Oro City 2nd District Representative Rufus Rodriguez said during the hearing that categorizing project items under FLRs would only give districts "false hopes" if these wouldn't be funded anyway. He argued that these items were supposedy appropriated already.

He urged the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to stop classifying projects as FLRs in the future.

"In our Constitution, we cannot have double appropriations. What has been appropriated in 2020 cannot be transferred to 2021. If we move the P135 billion and not pay the districts within a month's time, it will be unconstitutional. We cannot appropriate this," said Rodriguez.

"We urge the secretary of the DBM that there should be no more FLRs in the coming years," he added. –

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.