Church leader joins ‘pork’ fray

- Jose Aravilla -
Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales called yesterday for a "fasting on corruption," encouraging lawmakers to completely give up their pork barrel allocations because they are a source of temptation.

"If you say cut down, maybe it is better to have nothing at all (of the pork barrel funds). Just give it directly to the public," the top Church leader said during a weekend Mass welcoming newly designated Manila Auxiliary Bishop Bernardino Cortez.

Rosales was reacting to the debate raging in the legislature regarding the priority development assistance fund (PDAF), or pork barrel allocations of senators and congressmen.

In the wake of a looming fiscal crisis, two senators have proposed that lawmakers completely give up their PDAF for next year. Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. said congressmen are resistant to the senators’ proposal but are willing to have their pork barrel funds cut by as much as 40 percent.

Rosales said the pork barrel allocation only serves as a source of temptation to lawmakers.

"Let us help them cut down on their follies. Reduce corruption, in fact there should be nothing at all," he said. "Let us have a little fasting on corruption, the same fasting as in the (Catholic) Church when we do not eat."

Rosales, who usually shies away from making bold political statements, said he has read a book that studied the extent of corruption in the country, and this includes the abuse of pork barrel funds.

"This is a good start. So we are not condemning anyone. My prayer is for this to continue and corruption to be further reduced because I think this is our last chance for us to rise up again" as a country, he added.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, on the other hand, said De Venecia’s statement that congressmen are amenable to a 40-percent cut on their pork barrel allocation is "already a major step."

"I think this can still be worked out... Initially this was not being discussed and any proposals even for a small reduction are faced with huge opposition," he said.

Bunye said the congressmen are doing this in the "spirit of sacrifice and cooperation."

No one really knows, save some leaders of Congress, how much the pork barrel allocations for each senator and each member of the House of Representatives are.

However, the figures that are not disputed are P200 million for each senator and P65 million for each member of the House. All told, the Senate has P4.8 billion in "pork," while the House has about P15 billion.
LMP Opposes Cuts In IRA
Meanwhile, the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) opposed yesterday the 20 percent cut in the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) for local government units as proposed by Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, who chairs the House economic affairs committee.

Salceda’s proposal is part of a measure by which President Arroyo may not only reduce the local government units’ share in the national revenue but also freeze for three years the automatic yearly increases in the LGUs’ share mandated by the Local Government Code.

"Salceda’s proposal will inevitably spell disaster in the countryside where due to the devolution of government functions, the delivery of basic services to the people has become the frontline task of local governments," said Binalonan, Pangasinan Mayor Ramon Guico, LMP national president.

He said the LMP will soon meet to lay down an action plan for its own cost-saving measures to help the national government curb the growing budget deficit.

Guico added that the LMP is amenable to freezing the automatic increase in the IRA for the next two years, saying it is "a fair trade-off" for retaining the IRA at present levels.

Bunye said the proposal to maintain the IRA at its present level will already translate into huge savings for the national government. The IRA is currently pegged at P141 billion and is expected to go up by another P10 billion by 2005.

He stressed these measures alone are not enough to address the budget deficit — Congress needs to pass into law this year one or two of eight tax measures proposed by Mrs. Arroyo.

A task force composed of members of the executive and legislative branches is now studying which of the eight measures should be passed at the earliest possible time.

Bunye, reacting to Sen. Joker Arroyo’s challenge for the President to set an example by giving up her social fund, claimed the actual amount saved would not be significant.

The fund, said to be around P1 billion a year, comes primarily from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. as a percentage of its net revenue and some cash contributions from foreign governments.

Bunye pointed out that the total amount for Mrs. Arroyo’s first term, from 2001 to June this year, was only P1 billion.

However, he said the President is willing to match with her social fund the percentage by which the lawmakers agree to reduce their pork barrel allocation.
‘Too Focused On Pork’
With their pork barrel funds already as good as slashed, House leaders have set their sights on other sectors and branches of government that they claimed have been profligate in spending their allocated funds.

Tarlac Rep. Gilberto Teodoro said that in the effort to avert the fiscal crisis, there has been too much focus on the pork barrel funds rather than on long-term, structural solutions that would prevent similar financial problems in the future.

"There is once again a focus on peripherals rather than the jugular," he said. "Everybody is preaching about pork barrel but nobody is talking about giving more fiscal and legal incentives to domestic and foreign investments, about idle public land and mineral resources, about ridding the government of fat by streamlining it."

House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles said the IRA — which is automatically appropriated, unlike pork barrel funds –should neither be increased nor cut but their use strictly monitored by the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Commission on Audit.

He said the IRA should be not be used for non-essential services and expenditures but to fund massive infrastructure projects, a viewpoint echoed by Pasig City Rep. Robert Jaworski Jr.

"Freeze the hiring of casuals. No waiting sheds and basketball courts. No out-of-town conferences. No new vehicles and cellular phones," Nograles said.

Nograles said the IRA should have a strict menu prescribing the money ought to be spent. He noted the pork barrel funds can only be spent to fulfill the President’s 10-point program of governance and cannot be used for anything else.

Palawan Rep. Abraham Mitra warned that scuttling the Senate’s P4.8-billion pork barrel funds will make the regular appropriation of agencies prone to "senatorial hijacking."

"Whatever the senators lose from the abolition of PDAF, they can still recover through creative amendments in the budget law, or what are called ‘congressional insertions‚’ which for all intents and purposes, are still senatorial pork," he said.

Mitra pointed out that "nothing will prevent a senator" from amending the General Appropriations Bill (GAB) and "amend, say a provision proposing funds for an irrigation project and have it rewritten to have funds go to solar dryers."

This, he added, will be considered a congressional insertion and its use subject to consultations with the senator who sponsored the amendment.

"A proposed port in Masbate can end up in Samar, if an enterprising senator would tinker with it, and the executive can do nothing about it if it becomes part" of the GAB, Mitra said.

He noted that transparency is lost once the pork is secured through the congressional insertion system — some budgets of agencies arrive at the House already "pre-loaded" with senators’ pet projects since the senators’ intervention starts at the agency level.

Congressmen will be at the "losing end because projects specified to be implemented in our districts could be pawns in the insertion game some senators practice," Mitra said.

Tarlac Rep. Jesli Lapus, chairman of the House committee on ways and means, said what should be slashed "are discretionary funds and intelligence funds of LGUs and other executive branch agencies. That is pork fat and hardly audited."

The LGUs, which rely heavily on IRA, have become lazy in collecting local taxes and fees, and have not used their development funds according to law or for capital expenditures.

Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla said poor municipalities should not get any IRA cut and rich cities should volunteer to surrender part of their allocation to help the national government. — With Paolo Romero











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