Preview of speakership showdown? Cayetano, Velasco allies clash over 2021 DPWH budget

Allies of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and rival Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco traded barbs over the "disparity" in the infrastructure fund share of each district under the proposed 2021 budget.

Negros Oriental 3rd District Representative Arnolfo "Arnie" Teves Jr ruffled feathers on Thursday, September 17, when he questioned the alleged inequitable distribution of funds to congressional districts under the proposed Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) next year.

Teves is a member of the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), whose bloc in the House is led by Velasco.

During the DPWH budget hearing, Teves asked Secretary Mark Villar to confirm “rumors” that Taguig City supposedly got an P8-billion share, while Camarines Sur province received P11.8 billion of his agency's 2021 budget.

Teves argued that it was unfair that some cities and provinces are getting more funds than others that have recorded higher absorptive capacity, or the ability to actually spend the money allotted to them.

“‘Di ko talaga maintindihan kung bakit ‘yung iba nakakatanggap ng P8 bilyon, ‘yong iba wala pang P2 bilyon. Wala sanang problema kung non-performing 'yong distrito eh (I really can't understand why others are receiving P8 billion while some don't even get P2 billion. There wouldn't be any problem here if the district was non-performing),” Teves said.

He noted that his district has the 8th highest absorptive capacity in the country, but only got P2 billion under the 2021 DPWH budget.

“Gusto kong maintindihan, maintindihan ng constituents ko..., maintindihan ng buong bayan, at sana dumating ito sa tenga ng ating Presidente na may malaking disparity dito (I want to understand, my constituents to understand, the whole country to understand, and I hope it would reach the ears of the President that there's a big disparity here),” Teves said.

The Speaker and wife Lani represent the two legislative districts in Taguig City-Pateros. Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund "LRay" Villafuerte, Cayetano's close ally, represents the 2nd District of Camarines Sur.

Villafuerte fumed at Teves and accused him of being a “hatchet man” of the Velasco bloc that is allegedly out to botch the speedy passage of the 2021 budget under Cayetano. Teves denied this.

Cayetano and Velasco were the top contenders for speaker last year, along with Leyte 1st District Representative Martin Romualdez. The speakership race divided the House until Duterte himself brokered a term-sharing agreement among his allies.

Under the agreement, Cayetano is to lead the House for 15 months – or until October of this year – and Velasco will take over until 2022. But just before the coronavirus pandemic went full-swing in March, Cayetano accused Velasco of plotting a coup against him, which the Marinduque congressman categorically denied.

Teves: 'It's nothing personal'

On Thursday, Teves said he decided to speak up about the alleged inequitable distribution of the DPWH funds because his district received zero allocations in the previous year.

“May nangyari pa sa akin noong nakaraang taon na bigla na lang nawala ang budget ng distrito ko. Kaya ako naglakas loob na magsalita ngayon. Serohin man ang budget ko, bahala na. Pero hindi na puwedeng mananahimik na ko,” said the lawmaker.

(Last year, my district’s budget was removed. That’s why I mustered the courage to speak out now. I may be given zero budget again, but whatever. I can’t stay silent anymore.)

Still, Teves insisted his questions on the DPWH allocation for the districts of Cayetano and Villafuerte were “nothing personal.”

“Wala akong kinakalaban dito. Kaibigan ko si Speaker. Classmate ko sa amin, schoolmate kami o. Si LRay, kasama ko rin ‘yan. Pero ang naririnig ko, ganito. Bakit gano’n? Sana lang maliwanagan kami. It’s nothing personal,” said the PDP-Laban congressman. 

(I’m not at fighting with anyone here. The Speaker is my friend. He is my schoolmate. LRay is my colleague. But this what I’ve been hearing. Why so? I want to get some clarity here. It’s nothing personal.)

DPWH chief Villar did not confirm the exact amounts given to Taguig City and Camarines Sur when repeatedly pressed by Teves.

Instead, Villar said that allocations are “not necessarily” just based on absorptive capacity.

 He said congressinal districts where Duterte's priority infrastructure projects are located often get higher shares in the national budget.

“The basis is not necessarily absorptive capacity. It includes also the pipeline of projects…. There are certain areas with flagship projects that were approved by the NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) that show a high level of economic return. And those are prioritized by this administration,” explained Villar. 

Villar said that the DPWH can submit a breakdown of the specific shares of each district for 2021 to the House committee on appropriations.

Even before Duterte came to power, lawmakers allied with the incumbent President and Speaker tend to get higher infrastructure funds in the national budget.

Critics have long argued this became the new political currency in Congress ever since the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the pork barrel or the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

Villafuerte claims a Velasco-Teves-Benitez collusion

On late Thursday night, Villafuerte accused Teves of conniving with Velasco and former Negros Occidental congressman Alfredo “Albee” Benitez to stall the passage of the 2021 budget.

Villafuerte also claimed in a statement Benitez has “delusions of being a kingmaker to Velasco."

"It is clear as day that Congressman Teves has launched this chicanery on the basis of mere hearsay as part of the sinister ploy hatched by the Velasco camp, in cahoots with former Negros Occidental representative Alfredo Abelardo Benitez, to wreck Speaker Cayetano's commitment to fast-track the approval of the 2021 GAA (General Appropriations Act) by hopefully finishing the committee and plenary deliberations on the budget in record time by end-September,” said Villafuerte. 

He urged Teves to be "more circumspect next time and not allow himself to become the hatchet man of the Velasco-Benitez tandem."

The Cayetano ally also said that if even if Teves’ figures were correct, then it would mean that each of Camarines Sur’s 5 congressional districts would have just received around P2 billion under DPWH. But this is assuming that the P11.8 billion was equitably divided.

“So what harm has been done to him and to his legislative district when it is getting P2 billion worth of public works projects?" Villafuerte asked. 

The House leader then said a quick check on the DPWH’s proposed budget would show that at least 165 congressional districts are set to receive less than P2 billion in 2021. 

Villafuerte, however, neither confirmed nor denied if Camarines Sur was indeed allotted P11.8 billion under the DPWH.

'Put your money where your mouth is'

Teves denied he was in cahoots with Velasco and Benitez on Friday, September 18. "Albee and Lord does not have anything to do with this," the lawmaker said in a Viber message to Rappler.

He also sent documents compiling some of the big ticket infrastructure projects allotted for Taguig City and Camarines Sur in 2021, though the total amounts for each areas differ from the figures he mentioned during the hearing.

He disputed Villafuerte's claim that his questions were based on hearsay, saying he got the data from the National Expenditure Program or the version of the proposed budget as submitted by the executive branch to Congress.

The total for Taguig in Teves' documents amounts to P9,762,773,000 – higher than the P8 billion he mentioned during the DPWH budget hearing.

For the Camarines Sur document, Teves said he compiled only the infrastructure projects lodged under the Central Office. The total budget shown in the document is P7,377,965,000, lower than the P11.8 billion Teves earlier cited during the hearing.

"Why such disparity among the CamSur districts? These are just the projects lodged at the DPWH Central Office," Teves said.

Benitez also denied Villafuerte's allegations, calling it "totally baseless."

"My challenge to LRay Villafuerte. Put your money where your mouth is. You accuse Cong Teves of making accusations based on hearsay but what you are doing is worse. Totally baseless and a figment of your overactive and defensive imagination," Benitez said in a statement.

The former congressman then challenged Villafuerte to explain why Camarines Sur is supposedly requesting P420 million for the construction of its provincial capitol next year.

"Sa panahon ng (During the time of) COVID-19, where resources are scarce and people are struggling to survive, it is only right that we demand answers to legitimate questions," Benitez said.

Rappler has reached out to Velasco for comment, but he has not replied as of posting time. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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