(STAR) By Jess Diaz And Aurea Calica - Senators and congressmen have agreed on bloated pork barrel funds for this year or some P19 billion more than in 2008.

The bloating came in the form of huge increases in the budgets of agencies and lump-sum appropriations where pork barrel funds are usually hidden.

The adjustments unraveled as Congress ratified yesterday the P1.415-trillion budget for this year.

Malacañang said it welcomed the ratification but said its economic managers would still review the changes in the measure.

As approved by the House on Wednesday night and by the Senate yesterday, the Department of Public Works and Highways led the agencies that received the biggest increase at P9.4 billion. This pushed the DPWH budget from P120.5 billion to P129.9 billion.

The Department of Transportation and Communications received an additional P3.8 billion, bringing its funds for this year to P25 billion.

The budget of the Department of Education, on the other hand, was increased by P2 billion to P158.3 billion.

These three agencies are the lawmakers’ sources of funds for road construction, road maintenance, airport and port construction, airport and port rehabilitation, classroom building, school supply purchases, and related projects.

Many senators and congressmen are known to meddle in the awarding of contracts for these projects.

Lawmakers also increased the lump-sum priority development assistance fund (PDAF) by P3.4 billion to P9.7 billion.

PDAF is the only transparent pork barrel fund in the budget and it is clearly specified as a lump-sum appropriation. The other pork barrel funds are hidden in agency budgets.

Preparation for 2010 polls?

The lawmakers bloated their pork barrel funds apparently in preparation for the May 2010 elections.

Each senator enjoys P200 million in pork funds, except Sen. Panfilo Lacson who has opted not to share in the allocation while House members are entitled to P70 million each in pork funds for a combined total of P21.4 billion.

The Senate and the House created a P10-billion “economic stimulus fund” supposedly to help the nation survive the global economic crisis.

But even this fund smells of pork barrel.

For instance, P500 million of the fund would be allotted as “financial assistance for Talinong Pinoy program,” P1 billion for “education and skills development training programs for Kabataang Pinoy,” P1 billion in training assistance for laid-off workers, P3 billion for school buildings, P1 billion for medicines and medical supplies, P2.5 billion for food production, and P1 billion for Bantay Kalikasan and Bantay Dagat programs.

Half of the P1-billion for skills development would be given to the Technical Skills Education and Development Authority, which has also become a source of funds for lawmakers.

In the recent budget hearings in the House, TESDA chief Augusto Syjuco Jr. promised to give P2 million in scholarship funds to each congressman, supposedly for the lawmaker’s constituents.

The economic stimulus fund is an initiative of the Senate but it is not clear which chamber proposed the increases in pork barrel funds since bicameral conferences on the budget are not transparent.

Minority surprised

Even members of the House minority were surprised to learn on Wednesday that a final version of the budget has already been agreed on.

Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, one of the minority representatives in the conference committee, complained that the joint committee chairmen, Quirino Rep. Junie Cua and Sen. Edgardo Angara, failed to report to them the results of their meetings on the budget.

He said the entire committee met only once last Dec. 15, a meeting which he attended.

The Department of Finance, the agency in charge of generating revenues to support the budget, ironically lost P6 million.

Congress increased its 2009 budget by P443 million to P7.4 billion. It was the Senate that initiated the adjustment. Senators proposed an additional P250 million for the Senate proper and P34 million for the Senate Electoral Tribunal, which has only one case to resolve.

The two chambers of Congress funded the adjustments by reducing the debt service fund by P35.324 billion to P252.6 billion.

Senators’ explanation

Sen. Jamby Madrigal got only half or P100 million of her allocation.

Sen. Manuel Roxas II also announced he was giving up his P200 million PDAF but the funds had been appropriated in the ratified budget for this year and thus open to use by Malacañang or other lawmakers.

The P3.425 billion additional PDAF is un-programmed and may be released when revenue collections exceed targets.

When funds are un-programmed, lawmakers favored by Malacañang are normally prioritized in the appropriations for their pet projects.

Roxas said he would not utilize his PDAF in the light of the need to allocate more resources for emergency programs. But he has not been receiving any of his PDAF allocation since the latter half of 2005 anyway, since the Liberal Party withdrew its support for the Arroyo administration. Roxas is LP president.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said the additional pork barrel funds came from the House and that the breakdown as to how much would go to the Senate or to the Lower Chamber was not specified in the bicameral report.

Angara earlier said P30 billion of the P50 billion stimulus fund came from cuts in debt service while P20 billion was derived from re-alignment of appropriations for different departments.

But yesterday Angara and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile clarified that the P50 billion came wholly from debt service allocation.

‘Ignorant comments’

Angara said criticisms of the amendments were “ignorant comments,” as he stressed that it’s every lawmaker’s right to propose changes.

“What is the use of having the power of the purse if you cannot change (budget proposal) and re-channel spending? That is exactly what Congress did,” Angara said.

Lacson and Sen. Benigno Aquino III did not vote for the budget while Senators Pia and Alan Peter Cayetano expressed serious reservations on the budget approved by the Senate yesterday morning.

What P330 billion?

Enrile and Angara also questioned the P330 billion economic stimulus package that Mrs. Arroyo announced recently.

Enrile said the Palace should be the one to explain where it would get the funds for it.

“I don’t know who made the announcement but I keep reading about the P330 billion stimulus and I myself Mr. President is doubtful where (it) will come from because as I understand it, in a system of government like ours, only Congress can appropriate a spending package like that, unless someone now invented a money printing press and is going to spend it,” Angara said.

“That statement is damaging to us and someone should stand up and say no that is not a stimulus fund. You try and judge the stimulus fund put together by Congress because that is the legitimate way of appropriating money,” Angara said.

“Now if they were to be provided by the private sector I think it’s a ridiculous claim because precisely government is coming forward with tax money because the private sector does not spend,” he said.

Praises from Palace

Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio said the “swift and decisive action” by Congress “has averted the deficiencies of operating under a reenacted budget.”

“With the new appropriation in place, the government and our economy can face the new year as well as the challenges of the global financial crisis with greater confidence, facility and unity of purpose,” he said.

“The Palace trusts the collective wisdom of our lawmakers.” Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo said.

“The ratification will help us weather the global financial crisis,” she said.

But Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony Golez said he’s not sure of President Arroyo’s next move regarding changes in the budget.

“We have yet to see the budget as approved by Congress. It will take time before the approved version will reach the Palace for review of the DBM (Department of Budget and Management). Until then, we can’t say anything,” he said. with Paolo Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved