Welcome fund realignment
The Senate is on to something good in its move to strip “insertions” amounting to billions of pesos from the allocations of a couple of executive departments under the proposed P3.757-trillion 2019 national budget still under debate, and to reallocate that money to another department that may need it more.
Specifically, the proposal covers the mysterious P75 billion and P27.7 billion additions to the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), respectively, that majority and minority senators, in a rare show of bipartisan force, have agreed to remove. Senators have also expressed support for Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon’s push to have a portion of the money realigned to restore the P24.4-billion cut from the Department of Health’s (DOH) health facilities and human resources programs.
The Senate’s direction appears so far to be a more sensible, not to mention transparent, way to deploy public funds and prevent their misuse. The original DPWH submission in July 2018, for instance, was P480 billion, but that amount was increased to P555 billion in the long-delayed 2019 budget. Public Works Secretary Mark Villar himself would express surprise at the sudden additional budget lodged in his department. He said he had no idea where the extra P75 billion would be spent, or that any study had been done to determine the specific projects that would be implemented with the additional money, and that he only learned of it when it was included in the National Expenditure Program.
Like Villar, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año also denied knowing about the P27.7 billion addition to the proposed DILG budget—a curious circumstance that inevitably raises suspicions that the money is intended to be pork, or juicy allocations for pet projects by certain legislators.
Drilon’s pitch to redirect part of the deleted allocations to DOH projects—backed by Senators Loren Legarda and JV Ejercito, chairs of the Senate finance and health committees, respectively—is meant to be a corrective to the department’s much-reduced funding under the 2019 budget, which levied substantial cuts on, among other things, the Health Facilities Enhancement Program. From P30.26 billion in 2018, the program saw its funds whittled down to a startling P50 million in the 2019 budget, even as Health Secretary Francisco Duque III had originally pushed for P16.8 billion to finish over 1,000 nearly completed health facilities nationwide.
Ejercito, defending the DOH budget, said the lack of funds for health facilities would affect access to quality healthcare and the implementation of the proposed universal health care law. He batted for a further P7.4 billion for the DOH’s Human Resource for Health program, which aims to deploy more than 10,000 nurses and health professionals across the country.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson proposed another noteworthy remedial measure: Use part of the P75-billion DPWH “insertion” to fund slope protection work for key roads in Baguio, La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba and Tublay, which become impassable when landslides occur. The bottom line, insists Lacson—and rightly so—is that “the ‘transfer’ of the P75 billion should not be from pork to pork”—meaning the funds, wherever they end up, cannot under any circumstances be used as pork barrel by legislators, especially with 2019 as an election year.
The immediate picture that emerges from these proceedings is of markedly lopsided budget allocations, with some departments awash with sudden extra funds they profess to know nothing about, while other crucial frontline agencies are apportioned a relative pittance. As Drilon noted: “The DILG secretary was surprised P27.7 billion was added to his budget without his knowledge. That’s the same circumstance and process in the DPWH budget. And yet here we are in the Department of Health—P30 billion was being slashed in the public heath sector. I really cannot understand what budgeting process is being followed.”
The coming bicameral conference committee meetings on the budget will surely be bloody, with the House panel expected to fight for congressmen’s pork allocations and the budget department standing by the “insertions” (or “adjustments,” its word) it had made. But the Senate must hold its ground; its push for more rationality and transparency in the use of the people’s money ought to ground and inform, if not define, the final budget document.
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