Engaging the government on the 2022 national budget

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Never has the national government’s annual budget proposal attracted more public attention, and inducing closer scrutiny, than the one for 2022 – a presidential election year – now under committee deliberations in the House of Representatives.

By constitutional mandate, deliberations on and initial approval of such appropriation and spending proposals begin in the House; they are then passed on to the Senate for similar action.

Two factors are contributing to this situation:

• President Duterte’s declared intent to run for vice president in May 2022, causing noisy recriminations and stirring up a political ruckus, largely within his own adopted political party, now split, and among his allies whose political ambitions he had previously stroked; and

• The series of published reports by the Commission on Audit calling out deficiencies, lapses and other questions over the handling/mishandling of public funds by various executive departments, agencies and offices, particularly the Department of Health.

The COA reports concretized the specter of corruption within his administration, at which certain senators (among them supposedly his allies) have repeatedly taken aim. This has so riled President Duterte that he retaliated with verbal personal attacks and threatened to rake up past issues against one critic – Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who has declared his intention to run for president.

The issues and controversies raised by the two aforementioned factors have, in turn, spurred widespread responses from the public, not least from progressive people’s organizations and activists, various civil society groups and ordinary citizens. The marginalized sectors manifested a strong response, not unexpectedly since they continue to be at the receiving end of the worsening health and economic crises induced by the government’s prolonged mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must welcome this development. Let us encourage the public intervention or active engagement of a widening section of the population in the discussion of how the people’s money is allocated and spent primarily for their interest and welfare. Hopefully, the process can help to reverse the dismal state in which traditional politics has dumped us.

Discussions among representatives of progressive people’s organizations are yielding insights and information showing how favored departments and agencies of the Executive have been given substantial increases in their overall budgets, while others, although providing vital social services, have suffered budgetary cuts.

For instance, in the Department of Health, appropriations for public hospitals have been reduced when the obvious need is to increase funding for their operations and maintenance, not to mention expansion.

In the Department of Education, there’s a big slash in the funding for various educational programs, including scholarships. The budget for state universities and colleges (SUCs), the only way for poor students to acquire higher education, is being cut down by 17.7 percent. Also, one deduces from the DepEd budget that face-to-face classes have not yet been programmed.

On the other hand, the budget for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines is given a P35-billion allocation. Funding for the defense department’s rebel-returnee program is sustained.

And the budget for the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict or NTF-ELCAC has been increased from P19 billion this year to P23 billion next year. The huge increase would come despite the persistent calls by a good number of senators and the progressive bloc in the House to defund the task force because of its unrestrained arbitrary red-tagging and vilification of anyone it deems as “enemy of the state.” Such red-tagging has led to extrajudicial killing in several instances since 2018.

In this regard, let’s look at this report by PhilStar.com on how a key official of the NTF-ELCAC arrogantly behaves during a House committee hearing on the budget of the National Commission for Indigenous People (NCIP). The official is retired Army colonel Allen Capuyan, NCIP chairperson and concurrently executive director of NTF-ELCAC.

In the course of the hearing, Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat raised the probable conflict of interest in Capuyan’s dual roles. As NCIP chairperson, he is mandated to foster and protect the interest and welfare of indigenous people; but as NTF-ELCAC executive director he has been instrumental in implementing actions prejudicial to them. Rep. Cullamat also pointed out that the NCIP director for Caraga region serves as NTF-ELCAC spokesperson.

Capuyan retorted: “All of the regional directors of NCIP are advisers to the joint regional TF-ELCAC, considering [that] the problem of our insurgency is mostly on ancestral domain.”

When Cullamat remarked that it appeared that the agency which is mandated to protect the IPs has become the “secretariat” of the anti-insurgency task force, Capuyan rudely answered: “Unang-una, marami ka pong sinasabi, Cong. Cullamat, na mga kasinungalingan. Nabubuhay ka sa propaganda at nabubuhay ka sa turo sa iyo.”

At that point, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate stood up and called out Capuyan for making accusations against a lawmaker while in a formal House hearing. “Do not accuse a member of this House of telling lies in this budget hearing. You are here to present your budget,” he said.

“That is the statement of a member of this House as far as she knows,” Zarate added, addressing the committee presiding officer, Rep. Jocelyn Limkaichong. “Chairman Capuyan has no right to accuse a member of this House of lying… May (he) be reprimanded.”

Limkaichong, who is vice chair of the appropriations committee, then admonished Capuyan: “Mr. Capuyan, you have to refrain from saying those very negative comments. Besides, you are talking to a (people’s) representative. Kindly refrain.”

Capuyan apologized to both Cullamat and Zarate. His remarks were deleted from the records of the hearing.

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