That they have hundred-billions to steal means we’re overtaxed

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Congress factions are squealing on each other’s hidden pork barrels. We now know they’re pocketing hundreds of billions of pesos from useless projects. The closer to the powers that be, the bigger the share of the loot. The truth is clear. That lawmakers have such staggering amounts to steal means that we the people are overtaxed. We toil all day long, suffer inflated food prices, pack into sparse jitneys back to squalid homes – while the officials we pay to serve us live off our tax money. Are they provoking us into tax revolt?

Lone anti-pork senator Panfilo Lacson had opened the floodgates. Exposed were the P2.4 billion of Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, P1.9 billion of House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya, and similar slabs of their handful of crony congressmen in the 2019 national budget. Andaya could only admit it all and spread the guilt around. One-hundred other congressmen have bigger insertions for their districts than Arroyo, he averred. That of former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez supposedly was P8 billion. The rest of the 194 congressmen have P60 million each. Even the senators, except for Lacson, have P8 billion in all. Those add up to P272 billion.

It didn’t stop there. Andaya and Arroyo’s favorite Minority Leader Danilo Suarez teamed up to grill Budget Sec. Ben Diokno on Alvarez’s faction’s pork of P52 billion. Diokno corrected them that it was actually P75 billion, but that far from being pork it was for various public works. The two insisted just the same that it’s pork because in lump sum.

Andaya and Suarez accused Diokno of secretly inserting his own pork. Allegedly the latter had granted P550 million in infrastructure works to his daughter’s politician in-laws in Sorsogon. A constructor close to the in-laws purportedly cornered P10 billion in such projects in other provinces. Denying any favoritism, Diokno advised them to query instead the Public Works Secretary who approves such contracts.

Andaya pressed on. A resigned Cabinet man running in Election 2019 allegedly has P300 million “parked” in flood works courtesy of Diokno. A mayor of a “beneficiary” town in Bicol supposedly confided to Andaya. In a new scam, an influential politico’s pork is “parked” in a congressman’s district. Once the budget department funds the project the congressman takes the credit for it, and the porky politico the ubiquitous kickback. Flood control works are the easiest to pull off for such “parking scheme,” Andaya purported. Engineering measurements can be fudged. That’s why there are anti-flood allotments even for districts where unneeded. Andaya didn’t say so, but it is akin to the fertilizer fund scam during Arroyo’s Presidency, when he was budget secretary. Fertilizer subsidies were parked even in very urban non-farming districts. At any rate, Andaya said that Diokno’s flood control allotments surged from P79 billion in 2017 to P133 billion in 2018. For 2019 it’s P114.4 billion. Diokno countered that climate change necessitates flood works everywhere.

Alvarez had his own exposé. Allegedly the Arroyo-Andaya faction is shaking down Diokno to get its hands on the P166.1-billion road users’ fund that the latter refuses to release. That fund is the “big pork” from which congressmen get equal slices, no matter how many or few roads in their districts. First obeying President Rodrigo Duterte, the House had abolished the Road Board that doles the road tax, then transmitted the measure to the Senate. After the latter similarly passed the measure, the Arroyo-Andaya allegedly wanted it returned to them for rescinding. Their faction wants to divvy up the fund as they did during Arroyo’s Presidency, Alvarez said: “The extortion is shocking.” Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Minority Leader Franklin Drilon agreed with Alvarez to not let any congressman touch the road fund anymore.

Meanwhile, Drilon unearthed more “parked” allotments. Nearly P17 billion was given to the Dept. of Interior and Local Governments for projects it never even heard of.

Those inserted or parked pork total nearly P750 billion. That’s one-fifth of the P3.757-trillion national budget for 2019.

Pork barrels have fattened exponentially since 2013, when the Supreme Court outlawed them (see Gotcha, 10 Dec. 2018: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2018/12/10/1875664/are-our-lawmakers-so-untrustworthy). Before then it used to be P70 million for each of 292 congressmen and P200 million for each of 24 senators, or P25.24 billion in all. The lawmakers multiplied it 30 times with impunity – because they can and want to.

Kickbacks from pork projects used to be 10, then 15, then 25 percent. One ex-senator now eyeing a comeback notoriously demanded 50 percent for himself and five for his chief of staff, leaving only 45 percent for the infra-work. From the Napoles exposés we learned that senators and congressmen can pocket entire porks by faking the projects and the beneficiaries – even passing off entire published lists of licensure exam passers for the latter.

The P750 billion in pork-for-theft can be better used to shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and build more roads, railways, sea and airports. It can solve the roots of insurgency and advance the country technologically. Then again, officials will only steal from such works. Better to just let us be and stop taxing us any more.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website https://www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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