MANILA, Philippines – Drafting the yearly national budget continues to be a “hide-and-seek” game between government agencies disguising discretionary funds or “pork” in their budget proposals, and lawmakers attempting to catch them by sifting through their line items for dubious lump sums, said Senator Panfilo Lacson on Thursday, November 21.
The vice chair of the Senate committee on finance laughed off his frustration at still finding pork hiding between the lines of the proposed national budget for 2020, a day after the Senate wrapped up plenary deliberations to make way for the bicameral conference committee that would put the final stamp on the spending bill, or the General Appropriations Act (GAA).
"Hanggang ngayon, impossible dream. Hanggang ngayon, laging may paraan. 'Yan ang medyo nakaka... kakamatayan ko na yata, may pork pa rin,” Lacson told reporters in a briefing at the Senate in Pasay City.
(Until now, an impossible dream. Until now, they always find a way. That’s what’s rather…I’d be dying and there would still be pork.)
Earlier this week, Lacson flagged a total of some P20 billion in lump sums he found among the budget proposals of different agencies. He singled out the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which had P14 billion in what appeared to be “duplications” of budget items in its proposal.
“Isang glaring example is Kennon Road [in Baguio City], may P507 million tapos may P76 million. So baka ang P76 million, bahagi ng P507 million. And may dalawang project sa Batan Island sa Rapu-Rapu sa Bicol, circumferential road, dalawa rin ang items, eh isa lang ang circumferential road kasi maliit lang ang barangay,” Lacson pointed out.
(One glaring example is Kennon Road [in Baguio City], there’s an entry for P507 million and another for P76 million. So maybe the P76 million is part of the P507 million. And there are two projects on Batan Island in Rapu-Rapu in Bicol, a circumferential road that had two items, when there is only one circumferential road because it is quite a small barangay.)
Seemingly small items like these, Lacson said, added up to about P14 billion to P20 billion.
Lacson also noted how some agencies kept getting higher allocations every year despite failing to use up their appropriations from the previous year. He cited the Department of Education (DepEd) for example, which receives billions of pesos to build schoolhouses despite its inability to carry out construction projects.
Another example is the Department of Transportation (DOTr) that, like the DPWH, needed to have its proposal readjusted after the Duterte administration scrapped major projects from the Build, Build, Build infrastructure program.
In fact, Lacson said the DPWH, DOTr, and DepEd are the agencies whose proposed budgets will most likely be reduced because of unused appropriations from previous years.
More exciting than irritating
Some agencies have tried to justify sneaking lump sums into their budget proposals by arguing that the Supreme Court ruling that declared pork unconstitutional only referred to realigning funds after the GAA is enacted.
However, the ruling also said that "all informal practices of similar import na may (that involve) grave abuse of discretion, pork pa rin yan, (that’s still pork),” Lacson said.
So when agencies request funds for projects that have yet to be approved, or if they put in two entries for a single project, Lacson said those qualify as “grave abuse of discretion,” and the money that would be allocated for them can be considered pork – loose funds prone to corruption.
Which means lawmakers – at least those who mean well – have their work cut out for them. Oddly enough, Lacson said he likes the thrill of the chase.
“[It is] exciting, sometimes irritating. More exciting than irritating,” he mused.
“Every year, the discussion of the budget is a learning experience...simply because we do our research, and then there are so many things we discover every year, some irritating, some shocking, some funny,” he said.
"But it is our duty to scrutinize and debate on the national budget. After all, pera naman nating lahat ito (it’s all our money),” the lawmaker added. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.