, DECEMBER 22, 2006 (STAR) After failing to pass the national budget for 2007, members of both chambers of Congress see the enactment of the measure by February. But some quarters have expressed concern that the election campaign will distract lawmakers after the holidays and the government will have to live with the 2005 budget, re-enacted for the second year.

Already economic officials are warning that infrastructure development and basic services including education could suffer because of the failure to pass a new outlay for 2007. The proposed budget increases every year. Allocation of expenditures based on a re-enacted budget may not be too difficult from one year to the next. But between 2005 and 2007, the difference in the annual appropriation is about P350 billion. That’s a lot of money needed to finance development projects and improve the delivery of basic services.

All government agencies can use additional funding. The government needs to hire thousands of additional teachers, nurses and doctors as well as raise the salaries of health professionals and educators to prevent them from leaving for better paying jobs overseas. The country has such an acute shortage of school buildings and classrooms that even container vans will soon be converted into classrooms at the former city dump in Manila, with the British-supported project expected to be replicated in other parts of the country.

The government needs to hire more cops, environment police, graft investigators. It needs to improve the country’s infrastructure, whose inadequacy is driving away investors to neighboring countries. The country needs more roads, modern railways, bridges, even bigger prisons to accommodate the booming inmate population. The government needs money to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines, as promised once again yesterday by President Arroyo. The nation needs money to modernize the voting system.

All these items need additional funding. Government agencies devote a lot of time and effort preparing detailed budget proposals every year, only to see the previous year’s appropriation re-enacted and their efforts wasted. Now the national budget is set to be re-enacted again. Congress, perpetually distracted by partisan politics, never fails to disappoint the public.

COLUMN: Rushing to build 13,000 bridges GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc The Philippine Star 12/22/2006

"We built 400 bridges this year," beams Ted Haresco, director for business development of the British steelworks Mabey & Johnson. But his smile quickly fades, for "that means 13,000 more need to be put up all over the country." Calculating that the task would take 32 years at his rate of 1.1 bridges erected per day, he wishes that competitors come in and help. A true industrialist – he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry – Haresco looks beyond corporate profit towards national good. "If more builders join," he sighs, "we can shorten the mission to benefit more Filipinos faster."

State economists measure such benefit in terms of GDP – the overall effect on rural life. Haresco, though also an economist, would rather verify the impact on little people. The pre-fabricated bridges are assembled to link forgotten barrios with the poblacion. There were 15,000 such villages when the Ramos administration launched the project in 1994. Haresco has so far built 1,700 bridges. Fulfillment for him comes from finding out that his spanning of a river has tripled a farmer’s sale of produce, got kids to school dry instead of wading, or fired the womenfolk to venture to trade with the newly linked barangay.

Cultural impact comes as bonus. Haresco is thrilled that residents of Malolos, Bulacan, view their modern steel flyover, built in only 60 days, as the first relief from urban blight. Another overpass, built in only 14 days in San Fernando, Pampanga, solved 14 long years of citified traffic. Once, high officials and diplomats were surprised when, upon inaugurating another span, maidens in white and men in barong suddenly crowded around. Haresco learned later of the local belief that weddings performed on a bridge last forever.

The 400-bridge record for 2006 is by far the biggest. When the project began 12 years back, the rate was only one bridge every five months or so. The acceleration sprang from Haresco’s expertise in international finance and experience in government. He got Britain to lend the Philippines the bridge-building funds at less than 2 percent interest. He then got Mabey & Johnson, a 160-year-old firm with offices in 115 countries, to design a span that can last at least a century without maintenance. The result is a model whose parts snap onto each other for easy assembly, with no loose screws or chains that can fall off or be stolen, and sturdy enough to withstand rust or the onrush of floodwaters. With cash and ready metalwork, the project sped up through the Estrada tenure to the Arroyo presidency.

A third of the new bridges are in Mindanao, specifically in Muslim communities in need of economic jumpstart. For that reason, Haresco hired 730 former Moro rebels as assemblers and managers. The intended effect of the bridges matched the unintended one of the hiring pattern. "Imagine if those 730 men still bore arms against the government," a Mindanao congressman noted.

A big success came in 2004, after a typhoon brought down the center span of Quirino Bridge, cutting off the main highway to the Ilocos Region. Commodity prices rose rapidly and people couldn’t get to work. Normal repair would have taken nine months. But Mabey & Johnson laid down a temporary span 20 days after the collapse, and then replaced the crushed segment in another 32 days.

Ilocos was saved, but that year also saw envious criticism against the bridges program. With the speed by which the bridges were built, it was only natural for Haresco and Mabey & Johnson to finish their work before the slower road construction could commence. A politician assailed the project as "bridges to nowhere." The press took notice at first, but dropped the issue when it became apparent that there was no anomaly. As a bishop wrote: "I am of an ecclesiastical jurisdiction where many roads appear to lead nowhere, and bridges span dry riverbeds. But I ... attest that, in many cases, what many would consider ‘nowhere’ are in fact the hamlets of our barangay folk ... and dry riverbeds still need bridges over them because they do not remain dry throughout the year and because it is not the kindest thing to compel commuters and those who must go on foot to traverse riverbeds to reach their destination."

The political storm has passed, and all Haresco wants today is to bring down the number of bridges that still need to be assembled. If only other steelworks can build as fast.

* * *

As one tough state lawyer, it’s only inevitable for Senior Prosecutor Emmanuel Velasco to receive death threats. His assignments are among the most dangerous and controversial. He once handled all cases of rape and abuse of minors, and now leads legal inquiries against terrorists and coup plotters. At one point when he was assigned to the NBI, he had had to file charges of illegal detention and qualified bribery against a colleague, Rey Jaylo of the anti-illegal recruitment task force who is still at large. He was also a witness in the fatal shooting of police Col. Teofilo Viña, whose killer was released and flew back to America after settling out of court.

This week a concerned citizen wrote Velasco about overhearing two men in a Quezon City restaurant planning to assassinate him. Supposedly they intend to avenge a certain lawyer, but investigators believe that the name was mentioned only to mislead. NBI agents are looking into leads that Jaylo, a retired police captain, could be behind the latest death threat. The charges filed by Velasco against him merit no bail. Armed men had tailed Velasco in recent months, prompting the police to send him security details for prosecuting their cases as well. As Supreme Court clerk before he became justice, Presbitero Velasco had warned his cousin from Cavite about persistent reports of a hit by Jaylo.

But for Velasco, death threats come with the job. He is the son of former Interior Secretary, provincial governor and NBI chief Epimaco Velasco, who also had countless death threats as the agent who went after Nardong Putik and big-time drug lords. Asked by reporters about the latest letter-warning, Velasco just shrugged and said, "my mothers-in-law will not take that sitting down."

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved