A sleight-of-hand budget

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Streetwise | BusinessWorld

The State of the Nation speech of President Benigno S. Aquino III (BSA) has been lauded as “statesmanlike” in that he did not continue his broadside against the Supreme Court over its Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) decision. In fact, he studiously avoided giving the impression that he is continuing his tendentious defense of it at every possible turn.

So is the controversy over the DAP over? Has Malacaang seen the error of its ways and is now ready to correct them or at least take precautionary measures to prevent locking horns with the Supreme Court? Has BSA finally realized that the public has become ever more critical and vigilant about how the national budget is being made, especially whether and how it contains hidden pork susceptible to graft and corruption, patronage politics, not to mention plain arbitrariness and wastage?

Despite appearances that the BSA administration is backpedalling on its intransigent position on the DAP, its actual moves prove otherwise. This is starkly shown in the 2015 National Expenditure Program (NEP) submitted for legislation into the General Appropriations Act (GAA) or national budget for the next fiscal year.

Two things stand out: one, the retention of a humongous amount of what are clearly lump-sum funds under the sole discretion of the President; the other, the blatant attempt to legalize DAP-like elements already adjudged unconstitutional through the revised and expanded definition of savings.

Budget Secretary Butch Abad, when pressed by the media, could not avoid acknowledging that the P501 billion in the NEP called Special Purpose Funds is indeed a lump-sum fund. But once this sent alarm bells ringing about such funds’ vulnerability to abuse, the President’s men were quick to say that the NEP is by and large wholly itemized, and highlighted calamity and contingency funds as the obviously justifiable lump sums in the proposed budget. They conveniently fail to mention allocations for government-owned and -controlled corporations and public works and social services programs of local government units that have been implicated in some of the most malodorous anomalies and outright plunder of the people’s money in the recent past.

Former government treasurer Liling Briones is quite outspoken about the hundreds of billions to more than a trillion pesos in lump sum, discretionary a.k.a. pork funds available to the BSA administration in previous GAAs. Thus it is a wonder to her why the BSA administration persists in painting the picture of a hapless, helpless Chief Executive shorn of his DAP wonder funds. Looking now at the NEP, we quickly observe that nothing much has changed as far as that is concerned.

With estimates of anywhere from more than 900 billion to over a trillion in lump-sum funds last year, not a few have expressed the need for greater watchfulness over the budgeting process given that next year, the frenzy over the 2016 elections year will have begun, with politicians pressed to fatten their campaign kitty. What more obvious and accessible source is there if not lump-sum funds, especially for Malacaang, whose real “power over the purse” is what underpins the Executive’s influence, if not control, over Congress and local government units nationwide.

But what stands out as a blatant attempt to circumvent the Court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the DAP’s main elements is the redefinition and attempted expansion of savings in the NEP.

Section 67 wants to treat as savings those “portions or balances of any programmed appropriations…which have not been released or obligated as a result of… (a) Discontinuance or abandonment of the program, activity or project (P/A/P) for justifiable cause at any time during the validity of the appropriation; (b) Non-commencement of the P/A/P for which the appropriations is authorized within the first semester of FY 2015, unless the implementing agency shows that the P/A/P may still be undertaken or accomplished within FY 2016.”

This is a complete departure from the definition of savings in previous GAAs, wherein savings can only arise if there are portions of appropriations free from obligations “still available after the completion or final discontinuance or abandonment of the work for which the appropriation is authorized.”

This simply means that if a P/A/P is discontinued or abandoned for causes that only the Executive determines, the funds meant for these P/A/Ps are immediately considered “savings” and available for realignment. We note that discontinuance is not even qualified by the word “final”. This is tantamount to the Executive being given very wide and unrestricted latitude to set aside the GAA and choose and pick what P/A/Ps it will implement or augment.

Also, because of this revised definition of savings, failure to commence P/A/Ps is incentivized by the prospect of pooling “savings” that are thereafter left to the unhampered discretion of the Executive Department to use.

The people, led by the anti-pork barrel groups, face the challenge of defeating this sleight of hand about by BSA with the willing connivance of his subalterns in Congress. Given that BSA controls Congress, the other recourse will be to once more challenge the new GAA in the Supreme Court as violative of the Constitution and of the Court’s rulings.

Yet there are still other avenues being pursued that hold out much promise despite being a monumental undertaking at the outset. We mention here the People’s Initiative (PI) to abolish the pork barrel system, to be launched at a People’s Congress on Aug. 23 in Cebu City.

There are those who abhor the pork barrel system but have not yet reached the point of calling for the removal from office of BSA (dubbed the Pork Barrel King by the parliament of the streets) either through impeachment, resignation or ouster.

Nonetheless, the overt and covert moves of Malacaang to defend, uphold and even entrench the system of pork in government can only be counterchecked with such a powerful, if daunting, demand that epitomizes the call for accountability from the highest official of the land.

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.


Published in Business World
August 3, 2014

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