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Opinion

A growing trend

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

If Congress fails to serve as watchdog for people’s money, a growing trend will institutionalize the lack of accountability in the utilization of precious public funds.

The Duterte administration set the trend for massive confidential and intelligence fund allocations for the Office of the President (OP). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; Daughterte is now doing the same for her current posts, with a substantial CIF not only for the Office of the Vice President but also for the Department of Education.

For 2021, according to state auditors, the OP under Rodrigo Duterte spent P2.25 billion in confidential funds and another P2.25 billion in intelligence funds.

The OP’s CIF was even bigger in 2020, when P4.57 billion was used up – more than what was appropriated for the year. Even with the 14-year-high inflation factored in, the amounts are a huge jump from the average of P500 million to P600 million CIF accorded to the OP under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III.

Duterte rejected a provision in the 2021 appropriations law, which required quarterly reporting on the utilization of the CIF. The reason cited was that national security matters are exempted from such a disclosure.

But if it’s all about national security in the time of COVID, why did the Department of National Defense, which handles counterterrorism apart from external defense, have only P1.86 billion in CIF last year?

The Department of the Interior and Local Government, which has supervision over the Philippine National Police, spent P908.45 million in CIF.

Among the agencies with some functions related to law enforcement and fighting crime, the Department of Justice spent P258.21 million in CIF; the Department of Finance, P60.63 million; Department of Environment and Natural Resources, P15 million, and Department of Transportation, P16.85 million.

Even the Department of Foreign Affairs spent P31.75 million in CIF, while the Department of Social Welfare and Development had P20.04 million.

In the current administration, the CIFs have also been extended to the Office of the Solicitor General.

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Heidi Mendoza, a former head of the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services and Commission on Audit commissioner, along with former Senate president Franklin Drilon have said that the COA, an independent constitutional body, can exercise its authority and subject all CIFs to a thorough audit.

If the COA finds anomalous expenditures, it can disallow the funding, according to Drilon.

The only thing state auditors cannot do is to make their CIF audit public, Drilon told “The Chiefs” on One News last week.

There are, of course, limits to the details that even auditors can demand when it comes to the utilization of intelligence funds, especially for security agencies. The lives of informants can be put at risk and security operations can be jeopardized. There is a presumption of regularity in the use of CIFs by law enforcement agencies and the military.

How will CIFs be used by the DepEd and OVP? Taxpayers have been told that it will be used to go after child sex abusers, cyber bullies, drug pushers and other lowlifes who prey on school children.

But this is a job of law enforcement agencies, not educators. Militant teachers suspect that the money will be used to monitor their ranks for remarks or social media posts that displease DepEd and the administration.

Others fear that money may be used to rewrite textbooks to whitewash the dictatorship, although President Marcos has said in public that he’s not into revising history. But even if history books are to be rewritten, funding must be taken from the regular DepEd budget for textbooks, and not from lump sums that elude public accounting.

And what does the OVP need CIF for? Its budget has already ballooned to a hefty P2.3 billion from the P713.41 million allotted by Duterte to the OVP under Leni Robredo for 2022 (lower than the P908.79 million for 2021).

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If the DepEd is going to get a hefty increase in its budget, there are a gazillion other items in public education that urgently need funding – from additional classrooms to gadgets, textbooks and higher salaries for teachers.

The top achievement of DepEd in the past half-year is the return to in-person classes. The 100 percent objective was not attained, however, due to natural disasters and the sheer inadequacy of classrooms especially with physical distancing still encouraged.

Studies have shown that the pandemic widened the learning gap in this country, and worsened the quality of education. Addressing this critical problem in our human capital development requires so much more investments in public education than what has been allotted so far.

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The World Bank, in a recent study, said income inequality in the Philippines is one of the widest in East Asia. And one of the factors in this yawning income gap, it said, is uneven access to quality education. Like other similar studies, it noted that the pandemic widened the education gap between rich and poor.

Simply attaining Marcos’ objective of restoring Filipinos’ proficiency in English is challenging enough. He also wants greater emphasis on the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Seeing what’s happening in the DepEd in the past half year, his education secretary doesn’t seem up to the challenge; her heart and mind are elsewhere. The next six years are looking to become more lost years that will worsen the crisis in Philippine education.

Marcos should seriously consider giving his running mate another Cabinet portfolio – perhaps her original preference for the defense post (although there’s talk that this has been reserved for someone else). The President can do this when he finally relinquishes the agriculture portfolio – something that is happening soon, if the buzz proves accurate.

Critics of the CIF for the DepEd are pinning their hopes on the robust militancy among educators and students alike to prevent the misuse of public funds.

Ideally, the watchdog should be Congress. As Drilon told The Chiefs, approval of CIFs is a political issue. If people want to punish those who went along with the questioned appropriation, they should vote such politicians out of office, he said.

This, however, will require informed choices, made by people with sufficient education and the standing in life to say no to political patronage during elections. 

Only Congress might reverse this tide that goes against transparency. Members of the Malacañang rubberstamp House of Representatives are hopeless. Unfortunately for the nation, the situation is increasingly looking the same in the Senate.

CONGRESS

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