Senate removes OVP, DepEd secret funds

Cecille Suerte Felipe - The Philippine Star
Senate removes OVP, DepEd secret funds
Sen. Sonny Angara, chairperson of the Committee on Finance, answers questions as the Senate begins plenary debates on the proposed P5.768 trillion national budget for 2024 Wednesday, November 8, 2023. Angara, sponsor of the 2024 National Expenditure Program, reiterates during the questioning of the minority bloc that next year’s budget will encourage growth, slash poverty, narrow the budget deficit and reduce debt, jumpstart the economy’s transformation, and finally cement the country’s status as an upper middle-income nation.
Voltaire F. Domingo / Senate PRIB

Other civilian agencies affected

MANILA, Philippines — Senators have unanimously agreed to remove all confidential funds of the Office of the Vice President (OVP), Department of Education (DepEd) and all civilian agencies from the national budget for 2024, a senator has disclosed.

The move comes on the heels of the House of Representatives’ realignment of confidential funds to agencies involved in protecting the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and other security-related functions.

It was unclear if the Philippine Coast Guard, a civilian agency under the Department of Transportation, would lose its confidential and intelligence funds, as approved by the senators. The PCG, which patrols the WPS, is among the beneficiaries of the CIF realignment by the House.

There were unconfirmed reports that nine senators wanted to restore the P650 million in confidential funds requested for 2024 by Vice President Sara Duterte for the OVP and DepEd.

“We never voted on confidential and intelligence funds,” Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum yesterday.

“In fact, we agreed unanimously to remove all CIFs not only of the OVP and DepEd, but all civilian agencies with CIFs,” Estrada added.

Sen. Sonny Angara, who chairs the Senate finance committee, reassured Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III and Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros of sufficient time to tackle the proposed national budget.

The Senate started budget deliberations at 10 a.m. yesterday. As agreed by senators, they would deliberate from Monday to Friday for two weeks to ensure that the General Appropriations Bill (GAB), considered the most critical measure every year, will be passed on time.

Pimentel earlier appealed to the Senate leadership to ensure proper phasing of deliberations and eventual approval of next year’s budget target to give the minority bloc ample time to scrutinize the 2024 GAB.

“Actually, I will request the majority, since we are only two (in the minority)… We will plead with our 22 colleagues in the Senate that we can discuss the budget phase by phase to ensure proper scrutiny. We need time and we assure that our intervention is also quality,” he said.

During Congress’ joint session last Saturday, the House of Representatives formally transmitted to the Senate its approved version of the 2024 GAB.

After receiving the approved version, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri made a commitment that the Senate would pass the GAB by the first week of December.

Congress is set to go on Christmas break starting Dec. 15.

As the Senate tackled the proposed national budget, Pimentel asked about the CIFs and Angara replied, “a total of P9.82 billion in the (committee) report.”

Angara said the House of Representatives reduced the CIFs and the Senate adopted in the committee report the House’s recommendations.

He noted that the executive branch recommended around P10.1 billion as indicated in the National Expenditure Program 2024.

Pimentel also asked about the first set of CIFs, the P500 million, an amount initially allocated to the OVP, to which Angara replied that the amount has been realigned to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, National Security Council and the Philippine Coast Guard.

In his sponsorship speech, Angara emphasized that the proposed 2024 national budget would be more than a money bag.

“(It) is a toolbox for development to fund our nation’s progress, turn our collective dreams into reality and our people’s hopes into happiness,” he said.

“Our children’s education remains a top priority so that we can nurture a national talent pool that can identify and seize opportunities, solve problems and win the future,” he added.

The proposed national budget is equivalent to more than 20 percent of the country’s entire economy or gross domestic product and greater than the 2023 budget by 9.5 percent, according to the senator.

He pointed out that the new appropriations shall add up to P4.302 trillion, P4.02 trillion of which is programmed funds, with another P281.908 billion to be listed as unprogrammed.

Automatic appropriations shall amount to P1.748 trillion.

Angara explained that the proposed national budget appropriates a huge outlay for infrastructure, including hundreds of kilometers of roads, bridges and railways so that people and their produce can be transported safely.

“Why (the national budget) allots significant amounts for agriculture is to address the scarcity of affordable food and the poverty of those who grow and raise them because no nation can survive if it does not reward the sweat of its farmers who water and till their fields. Why it provides funds that will be spent on the generation of more quality jobs and support for local industries to become more globally competitive. Why it will bankroll our health system not just to cure the sick, but most importantly, to prevent our people from being ill and our families from being one hospitalization away from bankruptcy. Why it will spend sizable funds to keep our people secure in their homes, our streets safe for our children and our territory shielded from intruders. Why it downloads appropriations to the regions, provinces, cities and municipalities, so that our local government units and their communities will be empowered to pursue their own path to development and prosperity,” he said.

“In other words, Mr. President, the proposed budget contains the steps that the government wants to take toward a new Philippines, where life is stable, convenient and secure for every Filipino,” he added, addressing Zubiri.

Angara also noted that the government’s flagship programs shall be provided adequate funding so that they can continue in earnest. On ensuring food security, the senator said the Department of Agriculture and its attached agencies and government corporations’ programs are designed to ensure that food is affordable for every Filipino.

Aside from education, the budget is also focused on the health system, which will get P243.36 billion; the 4Ps and fuel subsidies under the Department of Transportation and the DA; the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s aid, such as the Social Pension for Indigent Senior Citizens, which will get P49.8 billion, Protective Services for Individuals and Families in Difficult Circumstances or AICS, which will have P56.3 billion; Sustainable Livelihood Program; Cash-for-work under KALAHI-CIDSS with an additional P1 billion and the supplementary feeding program with P6.1 billion.

“The 2024 budget will also pursue initiatives that enhance the global competitiveness and attractiveness to investors of our economy, aiming in particular to resolve the challenges our industries face in terms of expensive electricity and inadequate infrastructure,” Angara said.

“Our budget is also focused on enhancing our capabilities to safeguard our national security, maintain our territorial integrity, and uphold our sovereignty. In fact, we have to commend the Marcos administration for increasing its proposed spending for the defense sector in the coming year,” he added.

Amendment to special provision

Meanwhile, Hontiveros will seek an amendment to the special provision in the budget law that allowed the Office of the President (OP) to transfer its contingent funds to give confidential funds to Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte.

During the Senate plenary interpellation on the proposed 2024 national budget yesterday, the senator grilled Angara about Special Provision No. 1 that allowed the OP to use its P13 billion contingent fund to fund “new or urgent activities or projects” of other agencies in 2022.

“With respect to the augmentation of the confidential and intelligence funds from the contingent fund, as was done last year for the Office of the Vice President, we wish to propose an amendment to the current special provision of the contingent fund,” Hontiveros said.

She added that she wanted the special provision to expressly prohibit the use of contingent fund for CIFs, as was done by Duterte.

“As a matter of fiscal prudence, we would like to include the augmentation of the CIFs as a prohibition under the contingent fund along with the prohibition to tap the said fund for the purchase of, say, motor vehicles,” Hontiveros said.

The senator earlier called as a “ghost transfer” the OP’s realignment of P221.424 million contingent fund to augment the OVP’s projects and secret fund request last year.

Duterte used a portion of the transferred contingent fund for her office to have P125 million in confidential funds even though her predecessor, former vice president Leni Robredo, did not request for such a fund in the OVP’s 2022 budget.

Petitioners have questioned the constitutionality of the OVP’s use of the contingent fund to fund a non-existent budget item, and asked the Supreme Court for the Vice President to revert the P125 million confidential funds to the treasury.

Malacañang has defended the transfer, saying it complies with Special Provision No. 1.

Smooth bicam seem

In a related development, Ako Bicol party-list Rep. Zaldy Co, who chairs the House appropriations committee, yesterday expressed optimism that congressmen and senators who will comprise the bicameral conference committee will no longer have differing versions on what to do with the controversial issue concerning confidential funds.

Co said he sees no problem when they convene the bicam with the senators in deliberating the final version of the 2024 national budget, after the their counterparts in the upper chamber voted to realign CIFs.

“This jibes with or is a vindication of the decision of the House of Representatives to realign those appropriations. With such consensus, we foresee a smooth bicameral conference on the 2024 budget,” he added.

The reported agreement of senators to strip civilian agencies of CIFs, according to the lawmaker, will “expedite” the approval of next year’s spending program, which is expected to undergo bicam deliberations this month, and will likely be signed into law by President Marcos before the year ends.

The House earlier realigned CIFs of civilian offices, including the OVP and DepEd, to agencies that deal with national security and protection of the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea. – Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Delon Porcalla

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