Battle over ‘pork’
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2019 - 12:00am

A mother of two working in Metro Manila paid P50 to enroll each of her children in kindergarten in Guimaras, and then another P10 a month ostensibly for water and electricity fees in the public school.

This school year, she says, all such miscellaneous school fees have been prohibited. Obviously, she’s happy about this development, since she still spends about P1,000 a month for the schooling of each child for transportation and snacks.

The school, however, may be worried that the scrapped miscellaneous fees, low as they were, would not be covered by the government.

Such concerns are circulating these days, all the way to state-run higher education institutions, amid reports of hefty cuts in the proposed education budget for 2020.

The Senate will still have to deliberate on the General Appropriations Bill before final crafting in a bicameral conference. The funding cuts for education as well as health care, however, are coming under close scrutiny amid renewed controversy over pork barrel-type appropriations for congressmen in the GAB.

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After falling all over themselves to claim credit for the passage of the laws providing universal health care and free tertiary education, congressmen have now cut the funding for the programs.

If people complain that the free programs are nothing but OPM or oh promise me, who do you think will get the blame? Not the members of the House of Representatives, a.k.a. the HOR, but the guy who signed the measures into law: President Duterte.

And where did the billions cut from health care and education funding go? Some senators led by Panfilo Lacson are looking at individual appropriations for HOR members.

Congressmen have demanded an apology from Lacson for his claim. Albay Rep. Joey Salceda shed his charm and snapped at me when I pressed him on One News’ “The Chiefs” about reports that each HOR member had been allocated P100 million in “pork”-type funding under the GAB for 2020. The reports have fueled suspicion that the GAB was passed in record time for 100 million reasons, apart from Alan Peter Cayetano’s need to keep the Speaker’s post.

Salceda counts 20 senators in the administration stable who can ensure that there will be no repeat of the nearly five-month delay in the enactment of this year’s General Appropriations Act (GAA) by the 17th Congress under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The delay wreaked havoc on economic growth targets and derailed Duterte’s ambitious Build Build Build infrastructure program.

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The 75 high-impact flagship projects under Build Build Build are being revised, according to the guy recently appointed as presidential adviser on flagship projects. Vince Dizon, concurrently president and CEO of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority, is the first person to be appointed to the advisory post created during the Ramos administration and first occupied by Lito Osmeña.

The last person to get the post was Robert Aventajado, during the presidency of Joseph Estrada. Aventajado became embroiled in controversy over ransom kidnappings staged by the Abu Sayyaf; he was the last to occupy the post – until Dizon.

There is speculation that Dizon’s appointment indicates Duterte’s impatience with underwhelming implementation of his Build Build Build.

I’m not sure if the local projects identified by lawmakers for funding in their turfs under the GAB fall under Build Build Build. Giving lawmakers the privilege of picking projects for funding by taxpayers, however, has complicated development planning and implementation in this country, especially for the long term.

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The HOR members now up in arms against that nasty Ping Lacson insist that they have not “inserted” anything for themselves in the 2020 budget bill. They have simply approved in record time the national expenditure program, they insist, as submitted by Malacañang. If they have been allowed to pick pet projects for funding, they insist that this is part of the NEP.

Meaning, if busybodies smell a lechon festival in the budget bill, they can blame Malacañang and the folks who crafted the budget.

The congressmen could be right. Malacañang wanted the 2020 GAA passed in record time, and it probably needed to make lawmakers an offer they couldn’t refuse – short of Oplan Double Barrel, of course.

Lawmakers have enjoyed this privilege since 1990 when the Countrywide Development Fund was created during the presidency of Corazon Aquino. The CDF was supposed to finance small-scale pet projects of lawmakers, which might have been missed by the big-picture planners of the annual national appropriation.

The pork barrel became enormously useful for winning support and perpetuating politicians in power. Lawmakers have been unable to let go of this perk since then.

Thus began the endless patchwork repair, for example, of thoroughfares such as the NAIA-Sucat Road in Parañaque. The CDF evolved into the Priority Development Assistance Fund, later enhanced with the Disbursement Acceleration Program during Noynoy Aquino’s presidency. We all know what the lawmakers did with the PDAF together with Janet Lim Napoles, and how the DAP was disbursed after the ouster of Renato Corona as chief justice following his impeachment.

While no “pork” money goes directly to the pockets of lawmakers (at least in theory; Napoles and her cohorts found a way to actually get their hands on hard cash), senators and congressmen were given a say on the utilization of billions in public funds.

In the wake of the pork barrel scandal, the Supreme Court ruled against the PDAF and DAP, and prohibited lump sum appropriations in the annual budget. Lawmakers were barred from identifying projects for funding after the GAB has been approved.

Once you’ve tasted power over the utilization of billions in public funds, however, it must be nearly impossible to let go.

Lawmakers continued to identify pet projects for funding while deliberating on the budget proposed by Malacañang.

The Duterte administration tried to put this practice under a tight leash, by requiring all projects proposed by lawmakers to be in line with priorities set by the executive branch.

Benjamin Diokno, during his stint as budget chief, also tried to introduce a more transparent system of project funding. For his efforts, he earned a congressional investigation.

Fortunately for Ping Lacson, all that the furious HOR members can do to a fellow lawmaker is demand an apology and remind him of parliamentary courtesy.

Taxpayers won’t care if lawmakers lunge at each other’s throats. The principal concern is sufficient funding for all the programs promised by the administration – plus efficient implementation.

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