MANILA, July 29, 2013
(MANILA STANDARD) By Christine F. Herrera - Solons resist Palace plan to control funds

Congressional allies of President Benigno Aquino III warned Thursday of a major clash with the Palace over its plan to seize control of their pork barrel, amounting to P27 billion next year, effectively stripping them of the power to identify which projects to fund.

“This is war. We won’t accept the Palace’s dictates just like that,” said one ranking House official in the President’s own Liberal Party, but who asked not to be identified. “They are clipping our powers to decide what projects are needed in our districts. What do they know about what my constituents need?”

“Now we understand why the P10-billion pork mess was floated in the media,” he continued, saying that this gave the Palace an excuse to strip Congress of the power of the purse.

“This will give them complete control of the total P27 billion in pork barrel funds. Control of the budget will be centralized in the Palace. What happens to checks and balances? We will oppose this. Aren’t they content with the powers they have that they want ours, too?”

In a news conference Tuesday, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad acknowledged that the P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014 was not prepared “in the usual way” because it would do away with time-consuming paperwork, including the Special Allotment Release Orders (SAROs) that are traditionally needed to release funds to projects endorsed by the lawmakers.

“The five volumes of the national budget is now the SARO or the agencies’ budget matrix. There is no need for the congressmen to follow up with the Department of Budget and Management because this budget [follows the] Budget-as-Release Document regime in 2014,” Abad said.

Abad said this means the budgets of agencies, except those in a negative list, are considered released to them as soon as the national budget is enacted.

He said the budget now no longer contained lump sum budgeting but a menu of projects from various agencies, which proposed hard and soft projects for all districts nationwide.

“All that the congressmen would do is look at the list of projects and claim them. Everything is now in the budget. Their projects are there. It would save them a month of making follow-ups with DBM,” Abad said.

After the news conference, Abad told Manila Standard making lawmakers choose from a menu of projects cleared by the Palace did not strip them of their right to identify and endorse projects.

“No. We are not doing that. They can still identify and endorse the projects. These projects are even posted online. For example, under the DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways), the infrastructure projects per district were listed there [in the budget] and all that they have to do is choose which of the projects that they have already identified had been listed and claim them. Under the DA (Department of Agriculture), the number of hectares of lands they wanted irrigated or farm-to-market roads and so on, down the line,” Abad said.

He said the Palace was taking the new budget approach to meet its target of “inclusive growth” up to 2016, when the President leaves office.

Former House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman, author of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel pamphlets and resource speaker for the four-day lecture-series for the 64 neophyte lawmakers, said these projects were chosen in consultation with the departments’ respective district engineers and agencies.

“The lawmakers were asked what kind of projects their constituents need even before it [the budget] got printed. The only lawmakers who were not consulted were the 64 neophytes because they were not congressmen yet. The ones who consulted were their predecessors,” Lagman said.

For this reason, Lagman said the Palace should allow congressmen the leeway to realign the budget.

“That’s why I exhorted the new congressmen to reclaim Congress’ power of the purse. The Palace in the previous Congress had usurped that power. The President should not expect that his budget should be approved like it was cast in stone. The Palace should allow cuts and realignments. It should be reminded that as far as the budget is concerned, the Palace proposes, Congress approves and

disposes. Congress should not be the Palace’s rubber stamp,” Lagman said.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. this early gave assurances that the House would speed up the deliberations on the budget to avoid a reenacted budget. He also said that like the previous Congress, the budget would be approved “without cuts.”

But some reelected lawmakers said they were not consulted as to what projects they wanted to identify and endorse for their district.

In the past, Abad said, congressmen would complain about delays in the release of funds. Now, all they have to do is look at the prepared list of projects in the budget, submit their choice to the Budget Department and they are considered approved.

“We can save time and resources,” Abad said.

“That’s why we have taken pains to require all agencies when they submitted their budget to [specify] a list of projects, their location and the corresponding cost. That way, we will be able to execute the budget early,” he said.

Bidding on the projects would also be held early, Abad said. This year, he added, the Public Works Department has already bid out more than 80 percent of its infrastructure projects in the first quarter.

“The benefit of that Mr. Speaker is we can in fact advance the implementation even of our 2014 infrastructure program if necessary, and I think that is going to happen,” Abad said when he submitted the budget to Congress Tuesday.

Abad acknowledged that the speaker and the leaders of the House as well as the Senate and the Executive were going to propose reforms on the way the pork barrel is used.

“The direction really is to limit discretion,” Abad said, adding that they would also take into account the findings of the Justice Department, which is leading an investigation into allegations that some lawmakers funneled their pork barrel to bogus ghost projects in exchange for kickbacks.

The 2014 budget includes a P27-billion allotment for pork, which is a special line item, Abad said.

“What the Aquino administration introduced is that the whole and complete PDAF is in the budget unlike in the past,” he said.

But Abad said Congress and the Executive department have not yet agreed on a policy on the pork barrel of party-list lawmakers and senators, whose constituency is nationwide.

Each congressman has discretion over an annual P70 million allocation for pork barrel. Each senator is allotted P200 million.

Belmonte earlier appealed to his colleagues to strictly follow the menu of projects identified in the budget.

He also urged party-list lawmakers to come up with a plan on how to spend their development funds.

Senator Alan Cayetano voiced his approval of the Palace plan.

“That was what I have been talking about—that the pork barrel be included in the national budget,” he said in a text message. With Maricel V. Cruz and Macon Ramos-Araneta

Palace dares solons: Give up your ‘pork’ By Joyce Pangco Panares | Posted on Jul. 19, 2013 at 12:02am | 1,330 views

Demand. Protesters picket in front of the Justice Department in Manila on Thursday to call for the arrest of Janet Lim-Napoles and the filing of graft charges against her for defrauding the government of billions of pesos through ghost projects. Ey Acasio

But quick to say it’s voluntary

The Palace on Thursday challenged lawmakers to voluntarily give up their pork barrel but said it would not impose on them to do so, even in the midst of a P10-billion scandal over ghost projects and kickbacks. Demand. Protesters picket in front of the Justice Department in Manila on Thursday to call for the arrest of Janet Lim-Napoles and the filing of graft charges against her for defrauding the government of billions of pesos through ghost projects. Ey Acasio

“That is the call of each and every solon,” said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda. “Senator Panfilo Lacson did it. Is it something that is worth emulating? That is the call of each and every legislator.”

Lacierda said it was also up to Congress to decide on the fate of the P27 billion in Priority Development Assistance Funds or PDAF in the proposed 2014 national budget.

“The budget is going to be submitted to Congress. Now, whatever the final form is will be subject to discussions or deliberations in the House and the Senate,” Lacierda said.

He said the Palace would not impose on lawmakers so as not to be accused of intruding on their prerogative.

An administration ally, Senator Franklin Drilon, earlier suggested the abolition of the pork barrel following accusations that lawmakers channeled funds to dummy non-government organizations for ghost projects in exchange for kickbacks.

But Drilon quickly dialed back his suggestion, and said the funds should instead be used to help indigent patients and to build schools.

Leftwing lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives have already filed a bill seeking to abolish the PDAF and welcomed the challenge from the Palace.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares said he hoped the challenge would spur his fellow lawmakers to pass a law to abolish the PDAF or pork barrel.

“We call on like-minded legislators in the House to support our bill. We urge members of the Senate to file a counterpart measure,” Colmenares said.

He also renewed his call to President Aquino to no longer allocate any funds for the pork barrel in subsequent budgets submitted to Congress.

But incoming Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said it would be impossible for legislators to provide the much needed basic services for their constituents without the pork barrel.

“I am against the abolition of PDAF. We have our own constituents, unlike senators whose constituent is the whole nation,” Belmonte said.

He also said that it was premature to jump to conclusions over the pork barrel scam.

“Let us find out first what happened,” Belmonte told the Manila Standard.

Senator Grace Poe, who ran on the administration ticket last May, rejected the call to abolish the pork barrel, saying it was an opportunity for senators and congressmen to bankroll their advocacies that would help people.

She added that there would always be the temptation to misuse the budget, not only the PDAF, and that the solution was greater transparency.

Poe also supported Senator Francis Escudero, who urged the Senate to conduct an investigation in parallel with an ongoing probe by the Justice Department into allegations that some lawmakers funneled about P10 billion in pork barrel to a bogus non-governmental organization for ghost projects in return for kickbacks.

Senator Cynthia Villar said the Commission on Audit should also be included in the investigation for failing to spot the anomalies in the use of the pork barrel.

From the opposition, Senator Nancy Binay also rejected calls to abolish pork barrel, saying the funds would benefit the poor.

“ The bulk of my PDAF will be allocated to medical assistance,” she said.

Drilon said there was no need for a law to abolish PDAF – simply excluding it in future budgets would accomplish the same thing, as long as both chambers of Congress agreed to do so.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the 2014 proposed PDAF stood at P27 billion, the same amount allocated this year, and added that reforms had been undertaken to ensure the transparency in its use.

The menu of projects that can be funded by pork barrel was also limited to ensure that the projects “hews closely to priorities of the administration,” Abad said. With Maricel V. Cruz and Macon Ramos-Araneta

Palace told: No pork, no budget By Christine F. Herrera | Posted on Jul. 27, 2013 at 12:01am | 1,018 views

Belmonte moves to appease solons

Sixty-four new lawmakers and the minority bloc on Friday joined some House allies of President Benigno Aquino III in rejecting a bid by the Palace to seize control of their P27-billion in pork barrel next year, and threatened to block the passage of the P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014.

The 64 first-time lawmakers also rejected the Palace-approved projects for their districts that were identified by their predecessors and incorporated into the budget for next year.

The lawmakers also dismissed as an excuse Budget Secretary Florencio Abad’s explanation that the new system would speed up development projects because they were “as good as approved.”

The Palace on Friday said the inclusion of approved projects in the national budget was not aimed at stripping lawmakers of their power to decide where their pork would go.

“This is not the first time that we have worked with Congress on the menu of sorts for funding of their PDAF,” said deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte. “From the time that the President assumed office, we have always been working with Congress on the projects that can be funded out of their PDAF.”

Valte also denied the allegation of former House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman that the menu of projects will make Congress a rubber stamp.

To prevent a head-on collision with the Palace, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said “kinks” in the Palace plan needed to be straightened out.

“This needs clarification. Certainly, I would not deprive congressmen of the right to designate their PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel) projects,” Belmonte said after members of the majority coalition protested the Palace’s move to limit their choice of projects in their own districts.

Belmonte said he was worried that the budget might be delayed after Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, who was among the 64 new lawmakers, vowed that the budget would not be approved “without cuts” as the speaker had promised.

At best, Zamora said, the national budget would be passed “with modifications.”

Zamora also said they would reject the Palace-identified projects for their districts for the whole year of 2014, all of which were already printed in the five volumes of the 2014 budget that was submitted to Congress by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad on Tuesday.

Zamora vowed to scrutinize every line-item in the Palace-proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014.

He said the Palace’s plan of centralized control of the pork barrel clearly showed the Executive’s “lack of policy” in governing pork barrel allocations.

Zamora accused the Palace of adding another layer of bureaucracy in monitoring the projects and beneficiaries nationwide of some 292 lawmakers and 24 senators.

“We will not allow the Executive to strip us of the powers to identify our projects. The new House members will definitely reject the projects identified by their predecessors,” Zamora told the Manila Standard.

Zamora cited the case of former Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano, who did not submit proposals in deference to his son, Rodito, who replaced him.

In his case, Zamora said, his predecessor, San Juan City Rep.-turned Senator JV Ejercito had also deferred to him and did not submit proposals of projects to the Budget Department for the district.

“That is because JV and I are good friends. But what about the new congressmen who have had a bitter fight in the recently concluded mid-term polls and defeated the former incumbent congressmen? The winner would definitely not allow that his predecessor-rival identified the projects on his behalf,” Zamora said.

“And what about the more than 10 newly-created districts? Who identified the projects for these districts when there are no predecessors to speak of? The Palace?” Zamora said.

Zamora also asked what policy was governing the pork barrel allocations for some 58 party-list lawmakers, who did not have districts and whose constituencies were nationwide just like the senators’.

Abad said there is no policy yet for the party-list lawmakers and senators as this still needed to be discussed.

But Zamora said it was foolhardy for the Palace to add another layer of bureaucracy to monitor the projects for all the districts nationwide.

“For example the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) already has millions of household-recipients of the controversial conditional cash transfer program and the Palace would burden them with the additional work of monitoring the projects and beneficiaries nationwide? Will the Executive engage in a hiring binge to do the monitoring? That is another bureaucratic level,” Zamora said.

“If the President wanted transparency, he should institute the most stringent requirements in governing the PDAF. The national budget did not even have the details. Where are the details, the specifications? So where is transparency there?” Zamora said.

Independent and opposition lawmakers led by Lakas-CMD president and Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez have yet to say how they will deal with the Palace-proposed budget.

Zamora and Romualdez are expected to deliver their responses to the President’s SONA on Monday.

Romualdez, an opposition leader, said his speech would be a “counter-SONA,” but Zamora said his address would be be “contributions to the SONA.” With Joyce P. Pañares

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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