MANILA, SEPTEMBER 8, 2008 (STAR)  By Jess Diaz - Malacañang has released P2.6 billion in pork barrel funds, including P615 million for congressmen and an undisclosed amount for senators.

The money is to be used for farm-to-market roads (FMRs), described by critics as “farm-to-pocket” projects since corrupt lawmakers allegedly pocket at least 20 percent in commissions and kickbacks from such projects.

The STAR has learned from certain congressmen that the funds have been released to the Department of Agriculture (DA) without supporting details, like listings from lawmakers of FMRs to be constructed.

“It’s only now that House members, lucky enough to be allocated FMR money, are submitting their lists to the office of Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap,” a source said.

The allocation is not uniform among congressmen, with some getting P20 million, and others less than that.

Speaker Prospero Nograles is reportedly receiving a larger allotment.

“Not all of the 238 House members are getting FMR money. The unlucky ones include those from Metro Manila and militant party-list representatives who have been vocal critics of the Arroyo administration and not counted in the distribution of pork barrel money,” the source said.

Yap, who is reportedly planning to run for senator in 2010 , has discretion over the bulk of the P2.6-billion FMR funds released to his agency.

He can give additional allocations to senators and congressmen or hand out funds to governors and mayors.

Road contractors are now roaming the House and the agriculture department, offering attractive deals so they can get a slice of the huge FMR pie.

“A farm-to-market road is usually made of road filling materials and gravel, the kind of stuff that disappears when it rains. Thus, like in medicine and fertilizer purchases, the commissions and kickbacks are big,” one official said.

Yap has billions in funds for farm-to-market roads and irrigation canals. The money is appropriated under the so-called Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Program, which received from P10 billion to P18 billion each year over the past 10 years.

Despite the huge amount the government has spent for such program, there has been no noticeable improvement in agricultural productivity, especially in the production of rice.

This year, people have to grapple with a debilitating rice crisis. The staple continues to be scarce and its price is still high until now.

The modernization program was also the source of nearly P3 billion in money for “farm inputs and implements” that President Arroyo ordered released three months before the 2004 presidential elections.

Of the P3 billion, P728 million was for fertilizer purchases and was distributed among more than 100 congressmen and scores of governors and mayors, all Mrs. Arroyo’s allies.

The opposition claimed the money was used to boost the President’s chances in the elections.

The FMR funds newly allocated to House members are on top of what they get from their pork barrel, which dispenses P70 million per congressman and P200 million per senator every year.

They are also in addition to whatever amount they can wangle, or “extort,” as some put it, from Cabinet members and other agency heads during budget hearings.

Only last week, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) chief Augusto Syjuco, who holds a Cabinet rank, promised to distribute P2 million in scholarship funds to each House member next year.

“To have a level playing field among House members, we will continue to provide each congressional district with P2 million in scholarship funds,” he told members of the House appropriations committee.

Syjuco, a former Iloilo congressman, said he made available the same amount to his former colleagues last year, but that many of them have not availed themselves of their allocation or still have balances.

There are 238 House members, including those representing party-list groups. If militant representatives like those from Bayan Muna, who usually are not counted in the allocation of pork barrel money, are included, Tesda would be dispensing P476 million in additional “pork” to congressmen next year.

Hours after Syjuco made the promise, Quirino Rep. Junie Cua, appropriations committee chairman, set up a “confessional” where he said his colleagues could discuss their “parochial concerns,” such as requests for funds, with agency heads.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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