Budget Watch

Velasco allies’ district budgets increased after he took over as Speaker, says Lacson

JC Gotinga

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Velasco allies’ district budgets increased after he took over as Speaker, says Lacson

BATASAN. File photo of the plenary hall of the Batasang Pambansa, home of the House of Representatives

Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

(UPDATED) 'At the very least, it’s improper because the disparity in the distribution of funds to the different districts is too wide,' says Senator Panfilo Lacson

House lawmakers allied with Speaker Lord Allan Velasco received “noticeable” increases in their districts’ proposed 2021 budget appropriations after he took over the top post in the lower chamber, Senator Panfilo Lacson said on Wednesday, November 25.

“Heto, noticeable ito…na ‘yung mga malalapit sa bagong Speaker, mayroong naka-register na mga increases at ‘yung malalapit sa dating Speaker, ‘yun ang naka-experience naman ng reduction. So what else can you conclude, ano?” Lacson said in an interview on ANC’s Headstart.

(This one is noticeable…that those close to the new Speaker had increases registered, and those close to the former Speaker, they were the ones who experienced reduction. So what else can you conclude, right?)

Citing “information that came to [his] office,” Lacson said some House lawmakers “poked their fingers into the distribution or itemization of P396 billion or P474 billion” in appropriations under the proposed 2021 budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

“Some congressmen actually interfered in the apportioning of the lump sum appropriations under the DPWH budget, so that it reached P474 billion,” Lacson added.

Disparities in budgets for local public works projects among congressional districts was one of the major points of contention that led to the coup that installed Velasco as House Speaker in mid-October, unseating Taguig-Pateros Representative Alan Peter Cayetano.

May mga na-register na (There were registered) increases and decreases when the leadership changed in the House of Representatives,” Lacson said.

For instance, Lacson said the appropriation for Camarines Sur was reduced. The province’s 2nd congressional district is represented by former Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte, one of Cayetano’s closest allies.

Lacson could not recall how much the decrease in Camarines Sur’s portion was.

Villafuerte himself confirmed the budget cuts in 3 major infrastructure projects in his province in a statement on Thursday, November 26.

The Cayetano ally said P182 million was removed from the budget originally allotted for the 15-kilometer Camarines Sur Expressway, while another P124 million was slashed from the budget of the 61.9-kilometer Camarines Sur-Albay Diversion Road. A total of P80 million was also sliced off the budget for the 40.69-kilometer Pasacao-Balatan Tourism Highway.

“If the current House leadership claims to be fully supportive of the Duterte administration, why has it slashed on the sly the DPWH outlays in the House-endorsed General Appropriations Bill for 3 of the flagship projects in Bicol that were approved by the NEDA Board chaired by the President himself?” asked Villafuerte.

“I hope our senators would keep tabs on the actual allocations of all congressional districts in the would-be bicam talks by both chambers on the GAB for submission to the President, in light of suspicions that more unwarranted budget cuts are forthcoming as a way to increase the infrastructure outlays for the districts of representatives closely identified with the current House leadership,” he added.

Meanwhile, appropriations for Albay and Benguet provinces increased. Benguet’s caretaker congressman is ACT-CIS Representative Eric Yap, the chairperson of the House appropriations committee. The province’s elected representative, Nestor Fongwan Jr, died in December 2019.

As for Taguig City, Lacson said there was no change in its public works allotment under the budget bill, “probably out of respect or deference” to Cayetano.

Lacson: Improper, at the very least

Is all this anomalous? Host Karen Davila asked Lacson.

“At the very least, it’s improper because the disparity in the distribution of funds to the different districts, makikita natin masyadong malawak, ano (we can see that it’s too wide, right)?” Lacson replied.

The allocations for the districts went as high as P15.351 billion, and as low as P620 million, the senator noted.

Because the Constitution prohibits “pork barrel” or post-enactment itemization of budget appropriations, lawmakers tend to elbow one another for budget allotments for their pet projects in their districts.

This happens during budget deliberations in both chambers of Congress.

“During budget deliberations in the House and even in the Senate, dito na ‘yung galawan (the elbowing happens) and we can see the movement of appropriations of funds from one area to anther, and sometimes the disparity is so great that it becomes a bit unconscionable,” Lacson said.

The House handed over the 2021 general appropriations bill to the Senate on October 27, days after it passed the measure. Lacson was among several senators who questioned the House’s practice of making last-minute, supposedly minor, changes to the budget bill between its passage and transmittal to the Senate.

Before that, the speakership tussle between Velasco and Cayetano threatened to delay the budget process, putting the Senate on edge.

Now, the Senate is expected to pass its version of the P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget bill on Thursday, November 25, with enough time left for the bicameral committee conference and submission to Malacañang.

Yap: There’s no such thing

In an interview with Rappler, Yap denied there was anything anomalous about the adjustments in the districts’ allocations.

“‘Yung nabawasan ‘yung [budget ng] tao nila [dating] Speaker at nadagdagan ‘yung [budget ng] tao ni Speaker Velasco – I think that’s not true. Kasi katulad ko, in fact ako, Benguet ako. Hindi ako tao ni Cayetano, hindi ako tao ni Velasco, pero nadagdagan ako [ng budget]. Pero hindi ako ang nagdagag, ang nagdagdag is DPWH because we don’t accept ‘yung amendments lang ng Congress. We just accept institutional amendments galing sa agencies… puro agency-initiated ang mga amendments,” Yap said.

(That the former Speaker’s people got budget cuts and Speaker Velasco’s people got budget increases – I think that’s not true. Because like me, in fact me, I am Benguet’s representative. I am not Cayetano’s guy, I am not Velasco’s guy, but I got an increase [in my budget]. But I wasn’t the one who increased it, it is the DPWH that increased it because we don’t just accept the amendments by Congress. We just accept institutional amendments from the agencies…all amendments are agency-initiated.)

Yap said he asked Villafuerte about the supposed decrease in Camarines Sur’s allocation but has not heard back from the former deputy speaker.

“Dati, ‘yung mga allies ni Velasco, [sinasabi nila], ‘Ang baba ng budget namin, ‘yung kay Cayetano, mataas.’ Pero wala naman. Ngayon naman, ‘yung mga allies ni Speaker Cayetano – ‘Binawasan kami, napunta sa allies ni Velasco’ – when in fact, wala namang ganu’n,” Yap said.

(Before, Velasco’s allies used to say, ‘Our budgets are so low, and Cayetano’s allies’ budgets are high.’ But there’s no such thing. Now, Speaker Cayetano’s allies – ‘We got cuts, it went to Velasco’s allies’ – when in fact, there’s nothing of the sort.)

Rappler asked Yap if he could state Benguet’s budget from the DPWH in both the original version of the budget bill and the House-approved version. Yap evaded this, and instead said he was more focused on the actual projects than on the funds set aside for them.

Aware that House lawmakers would deny his suspicions, Lacson said: “The thing speaks for itself. No matter how they deny it, the documents speak for themselves.” – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

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.