(STAR) By Jess Diaz - Senators and congressmen have made President Arroyo’s proposed Pl.541-trillion 2010 spending program an election budget, according to Nueva Ecija Rep. Edno Joson yesterday.

“The bicameral conference committee has clearly loaded the budget with election funds,” he said.

Senate finance committee chairman Edgardo Angara and his House counterpart Quirino Rep. Junie Cua jointly headed the conference committee.

Joson, who declared he will not seek reelection despite the fact that he is just on his first term, said the bulk of the P64 billion that the Angara-Cua panel cut from debt service funds has apparently been diverted to the congressional pork barrel.

“It happened in January this year to the 2009 budget. It was repeated less than a year later to the 2010 budget,” he said.

Joson said senators and congressmen would most likely ask the President to release pork barrel funds hidden in the 2010 outlay early next year so they could be used during the election campaign.

At the start of the budget conference last Tuesday, Angara and Cua said Mrs. Arroyo should “frontload” funds between January and March.

The combined presidential, congressional and local elections will be held on May 10.

The Senate and the House ratified the Angara-Cua report at about 6 p.m. last Friday.

Fewer than 30 congressmen attended Friday’s session and voted to approve the report even without seeing it.

They were not given nor did they ask for copies of the report. Cua refused to furnish copies to journalists.

Ratification of the document was clearly rushed. Some 15 minutes before it was put to a vote, Cua’s staff was still asking conference committee members to sign it.

One of those seen signing the document was Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, one of the representatives of the minority in the Angara-Cua panel.

In the Senate, a source told The STAR that senators had to call for an hour-long recess to await Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, one of the members of the Angara contingent, so he could sign the report.

Over the weekend, members of Cua’s and Angara’s staff closeted themselves at the Mitra building of the House of Representatives to flesh out the details of the conference committee report.

Aside from Angara, Cua and possibly Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, Cua’s senior vice chairman, no one exactly knows what agencies received what amounts from the P64-billion debt cut.

House conferees could mention only one agency – Angara’s two-year-old Aurora Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), which received a huge P650-million increase from Angara, bloating its 2010 budget to P800 million.

In her proposed budget, Mrs. Arroyo recommended only P150 million for ASEZA for next year. The economic zone has barely taken off. There is even dispute over the land it occupies. Several farmers are claiming it.

Sources in the House surmised that the agencies that most likely received huge augmentations include the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Department of Education (DepEd), Department of Health (DOH), Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and Department of Agriculture (DA).

These are the agencies where pork barrel funds are hidden.

In January, when lawmakers finalized the 2009 budget, the same Angara-Cua committee cut debt service funds by P35.3 billion and diverted it to pork barrel agencies.

The agency that received the biggest augmentation was DPWH, which got a P9.4-billion adjustment. Its budget went up from P120.5 billion to P129.9 billion.

DOTC received an additional P3.8 billion, bringing its funds for this year to a total of P25 billion.

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

Smell of pork

The Angara-Cua panel also increased the priority development assistance fund (PDAF) by P3.4 billion to P9.7 billion.

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

At the same time, Angara created a P10-billion “economic stimulus fund” supposedly to help the nation survive the global financial and economic crisis.

But even this fund smelled of pork barrel as the national outlay for the coming year is P400-million lower that the President’s proposed budget of P1.541-trillion notwithstanding the move of Senators Panfilo Lacson and Jamby Madrigal to waive their respective PDAF.

For instance, P500 million of the fund is allotted as financial assistance for a “Talinong Pinoy program,” P1 billion for “education and skills development training programs for Kabataang Pinoy,” P1 billion as 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.

It is not known if the President has released these funds. She has dropped Angara’s P10-billion economic stimulus fund in her 2010 budget proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., for his part, urged Mrs. Arroyo to sign the Pl.45-trillion national budget before the end of the year to prevent a reversion to the old budget through automatic reenactment.

Pimentel stressed the extra efforts of both the Senate and House to expedite the passage of the budget bill before the Christmas break in a bid to do away with the vicious cycle of the national budget being reenacted year after year.

He said the national budget has always been re-enacted in the past nine years of the Arroyo administration because of delayed approval by Congress.

“This time we succeeded to pass the budget bill on time, thanks to the determination and diligence of leaders and members of both chambers of Congress. However, our efforts would be put to naught if nothing will be done by the Chief Executive to match them by way of signing the measure before 2009 bows out,” he said.

Pimentel said Mrs. Arroyo should do her part in seeing to it that the old budget is reenacted if only as a symbolic gesture to respect and uphold the appropriation power that is vested in Congress by the Constitution.

Pimentel stressed a reenacted budget should be avoided at all costs. – With Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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