Road tax rumble
The mud fight for pork in the House of Representatives appears to be getting nastier by the day.
The skirmish between the House and Malacañang over last-minute insertions by lawmakers in the proposed P3.8-trillion 2019 national budget — billions of pesos in project allocations reeking of pork barrel — has barely died down when fresh stink has surfaced.
Former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, apparently stung by reports that he was the top beneficiary of the largesse in the 2019 spending bill, claimed that lawmakers allied with Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo were craving the fattier pork in the Road Users Fund that is now being overseen by the Department of Budget and Management.
And it now appears that is where the bigger fight is taking place, because Malacañang has balked at releasing proceeds of the fund to Congress and said it is ready to sign the bill abolishing the fund’s original overseer, the corruption-plagued Road Board.
The fund, which accrues from the collection of the motor vehicle user’s charge (MVUC) from car owners during registration, has a balance of P45.7 billion with the Bureau of Treasury as of Nov. 30.
But Public Works Secretary Mark Villar told a Senate hearing that some P166.1 billion has not been released from the fund.
It could be the “big pork” all right, Senate President Vicente Sotto III conceded.
The hanky panky, according to Alvarez, begins when Road Board officials conspire with congressmen and favored contractors to skim off MVUC-funded projects in their own districts.
The costs of, say, road implements such as cat’s eye reflectors, metal railings and asphalt overlay are then padded to achieve the desired commission of as high as 40 percent. Cheap projects would suddenly balloon to P500 million, he said.
The billions of pesos of Road Board money assumes even greater significance in light of the upcoming midterm elections in May 2019; it appears lawmakers are in desperate need of extra cash for their election war chests, hence the uncharacteristic war Congress — specifically Arroyo and her allies — has declared on Malacañang for the latter’s refusal to share the moolah.
Arroyo’s lieutenants, who ousted Alvarez in a power grab that stole the thunder from President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address in July, recently summoned Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno to a Question Hour, grilling him over his P75-billion insertion in the proposed 2019 budget, part of which seemingly favors contractors in Sorsogon province where his daughter’s in-laws are officials.
Diokno’s own conduct in this aspect of the controversy deserves closer scrutiny, but if plain self-interest is the issue, pork-gorging congressmen are just about the last people to have the moral standing to huff about it.
Diokno would eventually say he got the goat of the lawmakers precisely because he stonewalled on the release of the road tax to Congress, on Mr. Duterte’s instructions.
Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr. said as much when he aired the suspicion that Diokno would release the funds only to favored allies in the midterm elections — meaning, all of this unseemly fracas is really only over who gets control of the public’s money, greed writ large among the country’s so-called leaders even as ordinary taxpayers are barely managing to stay afloat amid pinched times.
The lengths to which the Lower House would go to grab that stash can be breathtaking. After the Senate adopted the Alvarez-authored House bill abolishing the Road Board in September, the Arroyo-led House voided its own third reading approval of the measure, a barefaced volte-face that sent the bill into limbo.
The Senate then adopted the original House bill, with Sotto vowing to transmit the bill for signing by the President even without Arroyo’s signature. “The executive knows we abolished it. The House abolished it. They also know the President wants it abolished. It’s as good as abolished,” he said.
Malacañang’s desire to dissolve the Road Board, revert the fund to the national treasury and leave it to Congress to do the appropriation sounds like a sensible idea. But House members appear to be in no mood to moderate their greed for what they see as way bigger loot, even if that means getting down and dirty with their former chums in the Palace. Hence, to the country’s revulsion, the ongoing greasy, slimy skirmish at the top, damn the holiday cheer.
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