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Pork barrel lives, in another guise

/ 01:49 AM January 10, 2014

Like Dracula, the pork barrel is still alive, only in another form. It turns out that nine senators merely realigned a total of P1.8 billion and congressmen P930 billion of their pork barrel in the 2014 budget despite a Supreme Court ruling that the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the official name of the allocation, is unconstitutional.

Realignment means transferring the budget allocated for an approved item in a project to another item. The P200-million PDAF of each of the nine senators has been transferred, in the 2014 General Appropriations Act, to the Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of Health, Department of Social Welfare and Development, University of the Philippines, Commission on Higher Education, Philippine Army, Philippine Navy, Philippine National Police, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, calamity fund, and local government units.

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According to reports, the nine senators are the siblings Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano, the siblings Jinggoy Estrada and JV Ejercito, actors Bong Revilla and Lito Lapid, PDAF critic Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Ralph Recto, and Antonio Trillanes.

Is the realignment legal or constitutional in the light of the high court’s decision on the PDAF?

Yes, says Sen. Francis Escudero, chair of the Senate finance committee. The realignments (Escudero calls them “amendments”) came before the implementation of the P2.265-trillion national budget, he says.

The high court had declared unconstitutional all provisions of the law that allowed legislators “to wield any form of post-enactment authority in the implementation of the budget.”

But Escudero says the identification of beneficiaries of the realigned PDAF “does not violate” the high court’s ruling. “It’s well within our right to review and approve the budget,” he says. “This is preenactment intervention.”

On the other hand, this is the pertinent provision of the Constitution (Article VI, Section 25): “No law shall be passed authorizing any transfer of appropriations; however, the President, Senate President, House Speaker, Chief Justice and heads of constitutional commissions may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations.”

Does that provision authorize the transfer of the PDAF, already declared unconstitutional by the high court, to other departments?

As I see it, it does not. The realigned amounts were not savings from items in the budgets of the departments to which they were given. But lawyers and members of Congress see things differently from the layman. They can interpret, twist, and find loopholes in the law to justify what they want.

The realignments were not put to a vote. The senators had agreed in an earlier caucus to let each senator do what he/she wants to do with his/her pork allocation.

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“The Supreme Court was not clear on whether lawmakers could realign the funds or not because it is clear that Congress has the power of the purse and has the prerogative where government money should be spent,” says Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares. “What it was clear on was that lump-sum items should be discontinued and that everything in the budget should be itemized.”

Members of the House had realigned a much bigger amount—P930 billion, including the PDAF.

On the part of the executive branch, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad says the realignments would still need “a special budget request for their release.”

But Colmenares says: “Why does the President have to give his clearance before releasing the funds realigned by the senators? This is patronage politics; the PDAF was just converted into presidential pork.”

Escudero disagrees with Colmenares: “It’s completely in the hands of the executive [branch], including the decision to release or not to release the fund, or to ask for a program of work; [lawmakers have] no say in that.”

All the projects funded out of the allocations of the nine senators were itemized in the 2014 budget, Escudero says. These projects will be posted on the Senate website.

The realignments are “raising some alarm bells” because of the controversies involving the PDAF, he says. “But what happened in the past has not been proven yet.”

Members of the House still insist that their scholars and medical patients should continue to get the assistance they used to get from their pork barrel.

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga says executive agencies, particularly the DepEd, DOH, DSWD, DPWH, Tesda and Department of Labor and Employment, should draw up guidelines to ensure that lawmakers’ constituents will be able to continue receiving medical and burial assistance, scholarships and skills training.

The 2014 budget lists the various infrastructure projects that the House members had identified, like roads and bridges, water supply systems, and multipurpose buildings.

Each House member identified five infrastructure projects costing a minimum of P2 million each but with a total limit of P24.5 million.

“Until now there are no clear rules and regulations, and our constituents are inquiring about [the matter],” Barzaga says. “Part of the Supreme Court’s ruling is for the Executive to find solutions to ensure that the services offered by lawmakers’ PDAF will continue.”

There are reportedly 248,000 scholars of lawmakers from 73 legislative districts. These scholars still have a chance of receiving funding for their education from the 2014 budget because it has a provision that the CHEd should ensure that scholars whose funding came from other sources will continue to receive assistance.

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TAGS: column, congress, National budget, neal h. cruz, patronage politics, pork barrel, priority development fund, realignment
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