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Editorial

Pork for the taking

/ 05:26 AM December 14, 2018

Sen. Panfilo Lacson stirred a hornet’s nest when he publicly disclosed that House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr. had cornered billions of pesos in budget allocations for their districts. The resulting heated exchange among House leaders and Malacañang officials over the proposed P3.8-trillion national appropriation for 2019 is serving to bolster a simmering public suspicion: that lawmakers are continuing to divvy up budget allocations among themselves and apportioning huge chunks to their districts despite the Supreme Court ruling that pork barrel is unconstitutional.

After President Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo called on Arroyo to explain the P2.4 billion in project allocations for her district in Pampanga, her lieutenants pushed back. They summoned Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno to a Question Hour on Tuesday over his department’s insertions in the spending bill.

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As the lead characters traded barbs in the media ahead of the Question Hour, seemingly incredible figures for the districts of a “blessed few” in the House and for a favored contractor came tumbling out.

In a letter to the President, Andaya, who had cornered P1.9 billion for his district in Camarines Sur, disclosed that P5 billion had been earmarked for the district of Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez, the former speaker; P4 billion for that of former Davao City lawmaker and now Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles; and P3.5 billion for the former majority leader Rodolfo Fariñas.

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Andaya made light of the windfall for his and Arroyo’s districts, saying the House appropriations committee might have exercised “misplaced generosity.” He managed the temerity to claim that the measure had been crafted in such a way as “to purge the budget of development favoritism, and as much as possible, apportion next year’s spending to all districts in a fair manner.”

Earlier, Arroyo herself said—in a manner so brazen it was breathtaking—that the P2.4 billion for her district in Pampanga made her part of the “upper middle class” in terms of allocation.

On the eve of his appearance in the House, Diokno uncharacteristically defended the lawmakers’ prerogative to realign funds for their pet projects even without consulting the Department of Budget and Management.

“I am not saying it’s not pork, but that’s their prerogative,” said Diokno, an economics professor at the  University of the Philippines who in the not-too-distant past railed against the second Aquino administration’s distribution of funds to select local government units and bottom-up budgeting, which he described as both reeking of political patronage.

Nevertheless, he came under intense grilling during the televised Question Hour—which the lawmakers had called precisely for him to explain the P52-billion “insertions” that delayed the proposed appropriation’s approval—and was forced to admit that projects worth P75 billion had been added to the original budget request of the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Since when has it become possible for Cabinet officials to also tinker with the budget bill as they pleased?

More than the insertions, Diokno was also quizzed on the little-known Bulacan-based CT Leoncio Construction and Trading that was awarded with 30 projects by the DBM before Congress could agree on the proposed 2019 budget.

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CT Leoncio had a fund allocation of P1.7 billion in Sorsogon for 32 projects, mostly in the town of Casiguran. As it happened, the town mayor and the vice governor of Sorsogon are the parents of Diokno’s son-in-law. What is the public to do but connect the dots?

The wrangling has come to a head. On Wednesday night, the House approved a resolution urging the President to let go of Diokno, citing growing doubts about his integrity. But Malacañang is standing by its man, who has chosen to keep mum.

This sordid spectacle trains the spotlight on official doublespeak in restoring the pork barrel in the budget to the tune of sanctimonious protestations.

Is the money being earmarked for patronage during the 2019 midterm elections—crucial because it’s seen as a referendum on Mr. Duterte’s presidency—with the tacit approval of the budget secretary?

At the least, public outrage should be directed at voting down the undesirables.

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TAGS: 2019 national budget, opinion, Philippines, pork barrel
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