(TRIBUNE) By Angie M. Rosales and Gerry Baldo - The proposed P1.6-trillion 2011 national budget faces rough sailing in the Senate as a number of upper chamber members are coming out in the open opposing the appropriation of P21 billion in the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program of Aquino administration.

While Palace allies in the Senate are ready to defend it, even assuring approval of the item under the budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Sen. Edgardo Angara yesterday discounted the possibility of the CCT being approved without any cuts.

Angara himself is insisting on a slash by as much as P6 billion on the so-called anti-poverty instrument of the Aquino administration.

Angara said his colleagues are not opposed to the CCT program in itself but they are likely to move for a cut as the proposed P21-billion allocation is a huge jump from the current year’s figures at P10 billion which is more than a hundred percent increase.

“That’s almost P1.8 billion a month. That’s a lot of money and a lot of warm bodies because they have to provide 2.3 million families. I believe in this program. It can be an effective poverty fighter but it should be manageable, not wasteful spending,” said Angara in an interview with reporters.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile seconded Angara, insofar as the matter of the CCT suffering from a major slash in the 2011 budget. “We have to look at it objectively and find out if it’s workable. How can we check the amount that each recipient received and the distribution of the beneficiaries? How much of the beneficiaries come from Mindanao, Visayas, Metro Manila to see to it that the distribution is equitable? It’s possible that we can reduce it but whether we will actually reduce it, I do not know because we have the power to reduce. The power that we do not have is to increase. But reduction is a given power of Congress whether that will be exercised or not will depend upon our study of the budget or we may not cut it but we may re-allocate, augment some areas,” said Enrile.

Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero even wants it trimmed down to only P6 billion. The rest of the amount, he said, should instead be spread out, providing P1 billion to the judiciary to cover the needed compensation of judges and justices; P4 billion to the Department of Health regional hospitals; P5 billion to school-building programs of the Department of Education and Commission on Higher Education and the remaining fund to the Department of Agriculture.

For his part, Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III admitted having misgivings about the program itself, saying that further studies should be made as even the previous administration appeared to have mishandled the project.

“Definitely it is subject to abuse, not only in the distribution but also those who stand as beneficiaries, supposedly,” he said. “Another formula, but as I said earlier, is we should go for improving our rice production (instead of cash for the poor). If we really want to help the economy of the country, we should pour in some of our resources in uplifting the conditions of our farmers,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada said unless DSWD Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman can provide justification not only on the budgetary requirement but the effectiveness of the program, he will not consent to it.

“Unless I hear the explanation from Soliman, that’s the time I’ll comment on the issue. I’m against dole-outs because it provides only temporary relief. We should come up with a long-term solution, something that will really uplift them from poverty level,” he said.

Senators Francis Pangilinan and Sergio Osmeña III came to the defense of the Palace’ program.

Pangilinan said that the government’s P21 billion cash transfer fund is a cornerstone of Aquino’s poverty alleviation program. “The President needs our support in order for him to fulfill his anti-poverty campaign promise. The CCT budget is precisely aimed at doing just that. Hence, we believe that we should support the CCT program as is,” said Pangilinan.

“It’s a judgment call of the administration. And I am willing to support President Aquino about that one,” said Osmeña.

“It will go to the poorest of the poor. It’s a way of distributing wealth. But instead of giving them rice or giving them medicine, why don’t we give them cash. Actually, it has been effective. It was first implemented during (former President) Gloria’s (Arroyo’s) time. We have more poor (families now) than what Gloria had. The P21 billion is not enough. The poorest of the poor is about 35 percentof the population.

Meanwhile, some members of the House of Representatives yesterday complained that the P1.6-trillion national budget was passed Monday without the benefit of a review.

According to Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares the lawmakers did not expect that the budget would be passed on Monday amid a commitment by the House leadership that they will look into the P2.2-billion pork of former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo.

San Juan Rep. Joseph Victor Ejercito said that the budget did not reflect what has been discussed by the lawmakers in plenary.

Ejercito said that while he voted in favor of the passage of the proposed budget, he did so with a heavy heart to “give the Aquino administration a chance to prove themselves and the road they want to take.”

Colmenares said that the Aquino Administration is reneging on its zero-based budget policy by retaining billions of pesos in lump sum. “Lump sums are amorphous amounts that is not based on actual needs and very vulnerable to corruption,” he said.

Malacañang yesterday claimed he passage of P1.645-trillion proposed national budget of the Aquino administration for next year was not a product of a ‘tyranny of numbers’ as claimed by House Minority leaders who raised arguments on the questionable appropriations that were stated in that budget.

Deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said: “We cannot say that this (budget passage) came as a surprise for them (House Minority) because this budget has been discussed long ago. The House has been on this for quite some time already, if I’m not mistaken. The proposal that attracted more numbers shall prevail,” Valte told reporters in a news briefing.

The House of Representatives approved the P1.645-trillion Aquino budget last Monday by garnering 175 votes from lawmakers with hardly any cuts even on the contentious P21-billion fund sought by the Department of Social Welfare and Development for the conditional cash transfer program alone and the P253-million allocation requested by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

Valte extended gratitude on behalf of the government to administration lawmakers particularly House Speaker and Quezon City Rep. Feliciano Belmonte, House Majority Leader and Mandaluyong City Rep. Neptali Gonzales II, and House Committee on Appropriations chair and Cavite Rep. Joseph Emilio Abaya for this welcome development. With Aytch S. dela Cruz

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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