In 10 mins, Senate panel OKs President’s budget

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Francis Escudero says there are 'no issues' with the OP budget

'NO ISSUES.' Sen Francis Escudero says the controversial lump sum amounts are not under the budget of the OP but will be defended by the Department of Budget and Management. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – With no fuss, the Senate Finance Committee approved the budget of the Office of the President (OP).

Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr and Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras did not have a hard time defending the OP’s P2.82 billion budget for 2014, approved in just about 10 minutes. The figure is higher than the 2013 OP budget of P2.73 billion.

Only Senate Finance Committee Chairman Francis Escudero was present in the hearing on Tuesday, September 3.

In an interview after the hearing, Escudero explained that there were “no issues” with the OP budget because the lump sum funds are not under the OP.

“The lump sums [critics are mentioning] are with the Special Purpose Fund, which the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) will defend. Even the Presidential Social Fund is not with the budget of the President,” said Escudero, an ally of President Benigno Aquino III.

He added, “The third reason is by tradition, even in the past, Congress usually [extends] courtesy to the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President with respect to their budget and if there are any issues with respect to the administration, it’s addressed to the department and not the office itself.”

Escudero said it will be the DBM that will explain the use of the calamity fund, feasibility studies fund, and contingency fund under the Special Purpose Fund (SPF).

He said the President’s Social Fund is an off-budget item that Congress does not appropriate for. “It’s part of the share of the OP to form part of the social fund from the income of PAGCOR (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation).”

Ochoa declined requests for interviews.

During the budget presentation, Palace officials said the OP budget is broken down as follows:

  • Personal Services – P641 million (15.9% increase from 2013)
  • Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE) – P1.998 billion (6.3% increase from 2013)
  • Capital Outlays – P183 million

For personal services, the OP said the increase is due to the creation of the Transition Commission with 60 positions, and the Office of the Cabinet Secretary with 62 positions.

The Transition Commission is tasked to draft the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro political entity that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, as part of the government’s agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The OP’s MOOE covers activities like managerial, executive and technical services, and advisory, legal, and presidential executive staff services.

For capital outlays, the budget will be used for land improvement, asset preservation and management, and IT and general services equipment.

The Palace is spending on capital investments, mostly for the rehabilitation, improvement and upgrading of buildings, facilities and equipment.

Escudero said, “[The increase] is principally for additional capital expenditures. There is ongoing construction because of structural defects.”

Why so fast?

Minority senators Vicente Sotto III and JV Ejercito questioned the speed by which the committee passed the budget.

Ejercito said lawmakers traditionally do not ask many questions about the President’s budget but he found the Senate committee approving it faster than his experience in the House. 

Sotto said the time usually depends on the chairman and the department concerned. He stressed that the approval was just preliminary because the House has yet to transmit its approved 2014 budget.

“Most of us have not really studied it yet. One thing we can assure you is that when it comes to plenary, we will have time to discuss and ask questions on every department and that includes not just OP but the entire bureaucracy,” Sotto told reporters.

Sotto and Ejercito said the minority will ask about the president’s funds during plenary.

Ejercito said he was not able to make it in time for the OP’s budget as the committee was already hearing the Commission on Election’s budget when he arrived.

“I would have asked for the intelligence fund, social fund, how it’s being used but we also have to give the president some space. There are things you can’t quantify like calamity. We just have to trust his leadership. Ideally, it would be good if these items were broken down or itemized because of the clamor for transparency.”

‘It’s not President’s pork’

Escudero though echoed the Palace position that the President’s Social Fund cannot be considered the President’s pork barrel.

Observers and critics have called on Aquino to scrap his own “pork barrel” following the controversy surrounding lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), known as pork barrel.

In exchange for hefty kickbacks, senators and congressmen allegedly allowed their pork barrel funds to be channeled to finance bogus projects of ghost non-government organizations.

A 2007-2011 Commission on Audit report released in August found that at least P6.2 billion was released to 82 dubious NGOs.

Escudero said, “Pork barrel is associated with legislators, not with the President because the entire budget of government is with the president, not the legislators.”

“However, some people define pork barrel as a lump sum account. If that’s the definition they go by, perhaps it falls under that. For me, it’s not simply a lump sum account. Pork barrel has its origins with the discretion of a legislator with respect to a certain amount,” he added.

No Senate decision on pork yet

Escudero also said that senators have yet to decide on what to do with their pork barrel following the House of Representatives’ decision to scrap the lump sum of P25.2 billion in PDAF in the proposed 2014 budget.

“We will vote upon it given the resolutions that Sen [Alan Peter] Cayetano, myself and the other senators filed. We will approve it before we approve the budget. It cannot be pending and carried over,” he said.

If he would have his way, Escudero said he wants to either scrap the lump sum amount from the budget or reallocate it to education and health.

In an interview on Monday, Senate President Franklin Drilon said the Senate is inclined to support the House decision, with 15 senators already saying that they are ready to abolish the PDAF.

“Once the House will say no PDAF anymore, you won’t need a resolution because the General Appropriations Act no longer contains it,” Drilon said.

On August 23, Aquino announced that he will abolish the current PDAF system and install a new scheme aimed at setting stricter controls on projects that senators and congressmen will be allowed to identify for funding.

The President suspended the release of pork barrel for 2013 pending a complete probe. – Rappler.com

 

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.