, 2009 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - President Arroyo has cancelled her planned trip to New York next week but will proceed with her scheduled state visit to Saudi Arabia and to London for a speaking engagement, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde told The STAR last night.

“We are not going to New York anymore. Just to Saudi and London only,” Remonde said.

He declined to say why the President was calling off her trip to New York and referred The STAR to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier yesterday, DFA spokesman Ed Malaya, when asked about preparations for her coming travels, said that Mrs. Arroyo’s New York trip “is still iffy.”

The President was originally set to speak before one of the Leaders’ Meetings at the United Nations General Assembly’s annual conference at its New York headquarters.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita confirmed the President has decided to cut short her 10-day foreign travel schedule.

Mrs. Arroyo is scheduled to leave Manila on Sept. 17 for the United Kingdom where she is scheduled to speak before an international gathering of business and government executives organized by the London-based The Economist magazine.

She will fly to Saudi Arabia on Sept. 19 for her three-day state visit. She will return to Manila on Sept. 24.

The STAR earlier gathered that New York was originally the last leg of the President’s travels and that she was scheduled to return on Sept. 27.

Ermita could not also explain the change in the President’s travel plans.

“I was told about it an hour ago,” he said. He had declined to talk about the travel until he was told of Remonde’s confirmation of the changes in the schedules.

Palace officials have been reluctant to talk about the presidential travels since the uproar over reports of Mrs. Arroyo’s and her entourage’s alleged lavish dinners in New York and Washington last month.

The presidential party reportedly dined at the upscale Le Cirque restaurant in New York for $20,000 and at the Bobby Van’s steakhouse.

Palace officials said administration congressmen footed the bills.

The Palace came under fire for the perceived lavish dinner that was subsequently explained as a blowout party for the wedding anniversary of the Arroyos last Aug. 2. The dinner was later said to have been paid for by the New York-based brother of Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez.

But the Leyte congressman and nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos has refused to shed light on the controversial dinner.

It later turned out that another congressman in the official trip to the US, Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez also hosted an anniversary dinner for the President and her husband in Washington.

Suarez admitted paying $17,000 for dinner at Bobby Vans steakhouse.

The public furor over these lavish dinners abroad led to calls for the President to cut down on her foreign travels and for hordes of congressmen to stop tagging along.

While she was on official visit to the US upon the invitation of US President Barack Obama, the President had to cut short her scheduled stay there following the death of former President Corazon Aquino last Aug. 1.

Mrs. Arroyo flew back to Manila to pay her last respects.

Senate approves Palace budget

The Senate finance subcommittee led by Sen. Joker Arroyo approved yesterday the P4.259.376-billion budget for the Office of the President (OP) and P1.145 billion for the Office of the Press Secretary (OPS).

It only took about 10 minutes for Arroyo’s committee to approve the budget of the OP, which was represented by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita at the Senate yesterday.

Asked why the President’s budget was approved without deliberations and much scrutiny, Arroyo explained that the hearing was just preliminary.

“We’re talking here of the budget of the President. If the President does not authorize any budget for Congress, what happens to us? Traditionally… whoever the President is, whoever Congress is, the budget of the President is respected by Congress and the budget of Congress is respected by the President whoever is the occupant,” Arroyo said.

Ermita said he is ready to defend the entire budget, including the President’s travel expenses, if the question was raised during the hearing.

The President was recently criticized for her lavish travel and dinners abroad, including a controversial get together at a French restaurant in New York.

When reminded about the controversy, Ermita said: “I have no idea (why the issue was not brought up) because every time we come here we prepare ourselves as much as possible… We know it’s an issue.”

Apart from Ermita, Deputy Executive Secretary Susana Vargas admitted that the Palace has already spent P1.1 billion for the foreign and domestic travels of President Arroyo for the past eight years.

Ermita said there was a 4.6 percent increase in the locally-funded projects under the OP because of the creation of four offices, which were identified as the Mindanao river basin project, the Mindanao Office of the President that is to be set up in Davao, the Millennium Challenge Task Force that will coordinate with the US- Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the presidential adviser on revenue enhancement.

Ermita explained that the OP is divided into two, the OP proper and the locally funded projects.

The budget for OP proper even decreased, the executive secretary said.

The OP also asked for P150-million intelligence and confidential funds and another P500-million intelligence fund for the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC).

The Senate also approved the P1.145-billion budget of the Office of the Press Secretary, which is an 18 percent increase compared to the P970-million budget for 2009.

A big slice of the OPS budget will go to the Bureau of Broadcast Services and the Philippine Information Agency.

A total of P8.692 million of the OPS budget is allocated for Maintenance and Other Operational Expenses (MOOE), P1.922 million for Bureau of Communication Services; P1.199 million for News and Information Bureau, P1.747 million for the Presidential Broadcast staff of RTVM. Some P110 million is allocated for the People’s Television Network NBN-Channel 4.

The OPS also submitted proposals to include the budget appropriations for two sequestered TV stations, IBC-13 and RPN-9.

The Senate also heard the budget for the National Anti-Poverty Commission, Judicial System, Optical Media Board and Presidential Management Staff.

Jose Perez, court administrator, defended the budget of the judiciary yesterday. He lamented that the Department of Budget Management (DBM) slashed their department’s budget by some P49 million intended for new positions.

Emerging from the budget hearing, Ermita expressed relief that the OP’s budget was passed without a hitch.

“We are glad that the good senator (Arroyo) invoked the fact that traditionally the budget of the president is not scrutinized that much to show courtesy to the Office of the President. And I guess this is borne out of experience because the good senator himself had been the executive secretary. And he had experienced that during the time of President Aquino,” he said.

Meanwhile, opposition Sen. Francis Escudero yesterday said there should be transparency in the deliberations on the budget of the Office of the President once it reaches plenary debates.

“There should be transparency, particularly in relation to the expenditures of the Office of the President. There are attendant issues like the travels of President Arroyo, as well as the infamous $20,000 dinner in New York and the aborted purchase of a P1-billion jet. We cannot just sweep all of these issues under the rug for the sake of ‘tradition,’” Escudero said.

Escudero lamented that Arroyo’s committee approved without deliberations the proposed budgets of the OP, the OPS and the judiciary for 2010.

“There is no rule that it should be done to those two offices (OP and OPS) and certainly not when there is an issue or question that needs to be answered or explained to the public. Tradition may have been the basis for Sen. Arroyo’s approval of the budgets but I am not bound by that tradition,” he added.

Escudero said any legislator should be free to question and scrutinize the budgets of any government agency, including the OP, because this is taxpayers’ money.

“Governance is all about allocating scarce resources and that is what we should do with the budget,” the senator said.

He noted that President Arroyo spent P693 million for her travels in 2007, enough to fund the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, which had a budget of P665 million.

Mrs. Arroyo’s travel expenses were also about three times higher than the budget of the Office of the Solicitor General. – With Christina Mendez, Pia Lee-Brago

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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