Diverted
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2019 - 12:00am

Several years ago, former president Noynoy Aquino promised Cavite residents he would throw himself under a rushing train if the LRT-1 extension project is not completed by 2013. It is now 2019. Not one additional stop has been added to the line.

The reason for the delay is government’s failure to deliver on its right-of-way commitments. Because of this, government is actually paying the private concessionaire penalty fees for each day the right-of-way issues remain unresolved.

An elevated toll road linking the SLEX and the NLEX should have been completed by now. Like the MRT-1 extension project, right-of-way issues explain the delay.

The delay in delivering on government’s right-of-way commitments inflicts untold pain on hundreds of thousands of commuters. Imagine how much better traffic flow in the Mega Manila are had the LRT-1 extension project and the NLEX-SLEX connector been completed years before.

The TPLEX is happily in service even as it is being extended further north. But government owes farmers some money for the land expropriated to build this road. 

To be sure, settling right-of-way issues could be a messy affair. Even if government can invoke eminent domain to take over land and make way for infrastructure projects, claims often end up in protracted court proceedings.

But government must have the money ready to compensate for right of way. Otherwise, lack of funding will add to the complications of getting infrastructure done.

This is why it is important to pay close attention to the claims made by House appropriations committee chair Rolando Andaya.

Andaya, in a public statement, accuses the Senate of diverting billions of pesos from government departments charged with acquiring right-of-way for infra projects. The diversion, the congressman insists, will undermine the Duterte administration’s massive infra modernization program.

Specifically, the Senate took away from the Department of Transportation P5 billion earmarked for right-of-way projects. From the DPWH, the Senate took away P11.033 billion for the same purpose. In addition, the upper chamber removed P2.5 billion from the DPWH intended as counterpart funding for foreign-assisted projects.

The money stripped almost surreptitiously away by the senators blows a large hole on the infrastructure program. The money may not have been taken directly from project funding. But without the funds for right-of-way acquisitions and counterpart funding, the main projects could not proceed.

In addition, the Senate took out P3 billion from the TESDA budget intended for rebel returnees, out-of-school youth and rehabilitating drug dependents. At least 320,000 students enjoying technical education scholarships will be thrown out to the cold this year.

The Senate took out P2.254 billion from the DENR’s National Greening Program. The reduction in funding affects all provinces except, quite tellingly, Antique.

The Senate removed the P7.5 billion budget coursed through the Department of Foreign Affairs intended to fund next November’s Southeast Asian Games. P5 billion was transferred to the Philippine Sports Commission. The remaining sum disappears into thin air. At any rate, the effective reduction in funding threatens to trip up our hosting of the Games.

For good measure, the Senate took out P13.4 billion from the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefit Fund that is used to supplement wages for hundreds of thousands of government personnel. Likewise, the chamber removed P39 billion from the Pension and Gratuity Fund used to pay pensions for retirees from the public service.

While the Senate is busy cutting away funding from government agencies, the chamber allocated funds for an astounding large edifice at the Bonifacio Global City for its offices. The building is said to cost P8 billion although property specialists expect the bill for this ostentatious edifice to climb to P15 billion.

Set against the array of “victims” of the Senate’s wild budget cuts, the indulgence of a massive office building simply does not look good.

Unexplained

None of the senators bothered to come up with a satisfactory reply to the detailed accusation made by Andaya. Not one senator has taken responsibility for the large and imperious budget cuts.

While demanding accountability from everybody else, the Senate appears to have exempted itself from this virtue.

With the silence of the Sphinx, the senators seem to have adopted the attitude that it is beneath them to explain to the public the bloody assault they just performed on the budget bill. They have not officially admitted to making the cuts and have not bothered to tell us where they put the money.

While they performed a major surgery on the national budget, the senators kept up the spin that the congressmen were inserting “pork” in the bill. Here, too, the senators are short in providing detail. There appears to be some amount of deceit here.

The demeanor of the Senate has led to wild political speculation about why they did what they did. Some say a number of senators are nursing political ambitions come 2022 and need the Duterte administration to fail in its centerpiece infrastructure program.

Unless the Senate, as an institution, comes up with a full accounting of its decision to perform a major surgery on the national spending bill, we will have to conclude that this collegial body has become opaque and unaccountable to the people. This is not a healthy view of the institution. But the behavior of key powerbrokers in the Senate does nothing to dissuade us from it.

We trust the experts at the Office of the President will go through the budget bill with a fine comb. This seems like a budget bill crafted in the backrooms rather than in the full light of public scrutiny.

BUDGET CUTS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION LRT-1 EXTENSION PROJECT
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