Supreme Court Wins in Budget Battle with Malacanang

Carmela Fonbuena
Congress ratifies P1.8-trillion budget for 2012

MANILA, Philippines – Congress today, Nov. 29, ratified the P1.816-trillion budget for 2012 after finally deciding to scrap Malacanang’s controversial adjustments in the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefit Fund (MPBF), the hiring fund.

MPBF is the item in the budget that impounds all the funding for unfilled positions in the executive branch of government. In its proposed 2012 budget, Malacanang sought to expand the list of institutions whose budget for unfilled positions would be put under the executive, and it included Congress, Judiciary, and four constitutional bodies (Commission on Elections, Commission on Audit, Office of the Ombudsman, and the Civil Service Commission), which have always enjoyed fiscal autonomy.

Had it been approved, this adjustment would have transferred these institutions’ hiring funds to the Malacanang-controlled MPBF and effectively reduced their budget allocation. Combined, all six bodies have a hiring fund of P4.9 billion.

In the final budget, Congress returned the funds and upheld their fiscal autonomy.

“The Special provision will still state that the funds shall be used for filling unfilled positions. The word “exclusively” has been deleted. The constitutional provision to re-align savings was reinstated and quarterly report to the Office of the President, Senate and House of Representatives is required,” explained House committee on appropriations vice-chairman Cavite Rep. Joseph Emilio Abaya.

SC’s protest

The Judiciary has been the most vocal against the adjustment, saying that the proposed transfer is unconstitutional. It meant a budget cut of P2 billion.

In an unprecedented move, Chief Justice Renato Corona slammed Malacanang’s move in a speech during the annual convention of the Philippine Judges Association in October.

“I mince no words and I speak of nothing else but the insidious attempts to undermine, destroy even, the independence of the judiciary through such means as forcing us to beg for the funds guaranteed to us by the Constitution,” Corona said.

“Never before has the entire judiciary, even in the days of martial law, been subjected to so much disrespect and lack of civility from sectors we sincerely consider to be our partners in nation-building,” Corona added.

The 1987 Constitution guarantees the fiscal autonomy of the Supreme Court. Section 3, Article VIII reads: “The Judiciary shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. Appropriations for the Judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year and, after approval, shall be automatically and regularly released.

In defense of Malacanang’s decision, Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad said the proposed transfer was aimed at avoiding abuse of the budget for unfilled positions.

He cited the “conversion” controversy that hounded the Armed Forces of the Philippines, where funds were allegedly diverted to finance questionable expenditures.

The House still pressed to restrict the use of the restored funds in unfilled positions, but the Senate version — which imposes no restrictions — prevailed. In the end, Congress only asked the concerned institutions to report how they are spending the fund.

House minority votes ‘No’

House minority leader Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman welcomed “the full recognition of the fiscal autonomy of the Supreme Court and constitutional bodies.” Nevertheless, the minority bloc voted against the budget.

“I nonetheless cast a dissenting vote because the appropriations for the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) and for the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) are inordinately overstated and excessively funded, which budgets could have been reduced to augment the appropriations for education, state universities and colleges, health and infrastructure,” Lagman said in a statement.

Sen. Franklin Drilon’s sponsorship speech enumerated the following major realignments:

1. Realignment of P1 B in the Department of Education from Capital Outlays-School Buildings to MOOE of the Kindergarten Program and additional hiring of teachers;

2. Realignment of P1.9 B to form a PAMANA Fund, to be sourced from appropriations for the same in several agencies, namely, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)-Office of the Secretary, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)-Office of the Secretary; and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP);

3. Realignment of P700 M from the Department of the Interior and Local Government-Office of the Secretary to the Local Water Utilities Administration for potable water supply for Level III Water Systems;

4. Realignment within the Judiciary of P440.6 M, particularly from lump sums for total unfilled positions to unfilled positions for unorganized courts.  –Move.PH