APRIL 1, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero And Mayen Jaymalin - The government would have to spend at least P2 billion to finance the holding of a plebiscite in the middle of the year on proposed amendments to the 1987 Constitution.

Even in the absence of an allocation by Congress to finance the plebiscite, administration officials pointed out other sources have been made available for the political undertaking.

In separate interviews, Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. and Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chairman of the House committee on appropriations, insisted there is enough money to finance the plebiscite.

Although the Commission on Elections (Comelec) estimated that P2.192 billion would be needed to conduct the plebiscite, Salceda pointed to other sources of funds outside of the proposed P1.053-trillion national budget for this year.

"As you can see, for the first two months of the year we are P5 billion ahead of our deficit targets. That already provides you enough leeway to fund the plebiscite," the Albay lawmaker said.

Salceda said the funding for the plebiscite could be sourced from the reenacted 2005 budget as Congress has yet to approve the proposed money measure for this year.

And there is also the contingency fund of P800 million that could be tapped for the activity, he added.

"In 2004, there was no budget for the national elections because the 2004 budget was reenacted from 2003 (national budget) but we were able to hold the 2004 presidential elections," Salceda said.

He said the P3.6 billion needed to finance the May 2004 elections was easily raised.

The Arroyo administration is bent on pursuing moves to amend the Constitution, either through a constituent assembly in which both the Senate and the House convene as one Charter-amending body, or through the controversial though more direct signature-gathering people’s initiative.

Either way, the outcome — whether by a resolution from Congress or a Comelec verification of the gathered requisite number of signatures — would have to be presented to the people for ratification.

Both methods require that the proposed amendments be put to a plebiscite.

Andaya, for his part, said the government has not authorized the funding of the people’s initiative.

He said the Department of Budget and Management would only release the funds if the Comelec gives the go signal for a plebiscite.

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos has also admitted a lack of funding to hold a plebiscite.

"I don’t (know) where to get the money or if Congress would give it to us but as of now, we do not have the budget and it would definitely give us a problem in proceeding" with the plebiscite, Abalos said.

Comelec Commissioner Resurreccion Borra echoed the problem, pointing out the poll body cannot proceed with a referendum this year without a budget.

"Comelec would be needing at least P2.6 billion for the referendum since it’s also like an election wherein we have to prepare and allocate budget for the printing of the election paraphernalia as well as (conduct a) voters’ education campaign," Borra explained.

Abalos earlier disclosed the Comelec was expecting a legal battle ahead of moves to conduct a plebiscite.

He said the poll body is expecting anti-Charter change advocates to file suits to prevent Comelec from approving the petition for a people’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

At the moment, Abalos explained the Comelec is merely restricted from "entertaining" the people’s initiative, citing the absence of an enabling law.

But to "entertain" the process could apply to the poll body starting its verification of the gathered signatures, according to Abalos.

Abalos also advised those who participated in the people’s initiative to report to the Comelec if their signatures have been forged or they were forced to sign any petition.

"If they were forced or claimed to not know what they had signed, they can go to the poll registrars and ask that their signatures be discarded before the start of the verification," Abalos said.

Abalos made the appeal in the wake of reports that Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno was personally overseeing the signature-gathering operations for the people’s initiative.

There were reports alleging that Puno was overseeing the transfer of signature forms on the people’s initiative at the Horizon Hotel in Mandaluyong City.

Puno, on the other hand, challenged detractors to produce any evidence that his department was interfering in the signature campaign to support the people’s initiative.

"Reports are coming from people opposing the signature campaign, but they could not produce evidence. We need hard evidence from objective and impartial witnesses," Puno said.

Puno was quick to clarify that the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) was not taking part in the signature-gathering campaign initiated by the group "Sigaw ng Bayan" and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP).

He said the signature-gathering campaign had kicked off last year even before his appointment as DILG Secretary.

"Where are those reports coming from? If you analyze the reports, they seem to emanate from those who are against the people’s initiative. They are simply afraid of it," Puno said in Filipino.

"Wala na kami dyan, labas na kami dyan (It’s out of our hands. It’s none of our business)," Puno stressed.

Puno challenged the media to search the Horizon Hotel for the supposed signature forms on the people’s initiative he is allegedly keeping.

He noted that television footage of the alleged delivery of completed signature forms merely showed a man hauling boxes to the hotel.

Puno clarified the items were balikbayan boxes carried by the driver of an overseas Filipino who had just returned from the United States.

Puno said erroneous reports had put someone’s career at risk just to cast a bad light on the people’s initiative mode. — With Cecille Suerte Felipe

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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