August 05, 2014

The sleight-of-hand budget

The SONA speech of President Benigno S. Aquino III (BSA) has been lauded as “statesmanlike” in that he did not continue his broadside against the Supreme Court over its Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) decision.  In fact he studiously avoided giving the impression that he is continuing his tendentious defense of it at every possible turn.

So is the controversy over the DAP over?  Has Malacanang seen the error of its ways and is now ready to correct them or at least take precautionary measures to prevent coming to loggerheads with the Supreme Court?  Has BSA finally realized that the public has become ever more critical and vigilant about how the national budget is being made, especially whether and how it contains hidden pork susceptible to graft and corruption, patronage politics, not to mention plain arbitrariness, misprioritization and wastage?

Despite appearances that the BSA administration is backpedalling on its intransigent position that the DAP is completely lawful, correct and beneficial to the public interest, its actual moves and countermoves prove otherwise.  This is starkly shown in the 2015 National Expenditure Program (NEP) submitted by the Executive department for legislation into the General Appropriations Act (GAA) or national budget for the next fiscal year.  

Two things stand out: one, the retention of a humongous amount of what are clearly lump sum funds under the sole discretion of the President; the other, the blatant attempt to legalize DAP-like elements already adjudged unconstitutional through the revised and expanded definition of savings.

Budget Secretary Butch Abad, when pressed by media, could not avoid acknowledging that the P501 billion worth item in the NEP called Special Purpose Funds is indeed a lump sum fund.  But once this sent alarm bells ringing about such funds’ vulnerability to abuse, the President’s men were quick to try to squelch further questioning by saying that the NEP is by and large wholly itemized and by highlighting calamity and contingency funds as the obviously justifiable lump sums in the proposed budget.  They conveniently fail to mention allocations for Government Owned and Controlled Corporations and public works and social services programs of local government units that have been implicated in some of the most malodorous anomalies and outright plunder of the people’s money in the recent past.

Former government treasurer, Prof. Liling Briones, is quite outspoken about the hundreds of billions to more than a trillion in lump sum, discretionary aka pork funds available to the BSA administration in previous GAAs.  Thus it is a wonder to her why the BSA administration persists in painting the picture of a hapless, helpless Chief Executive shorn of his DAP wonder funds.  Looking now at the NEP, we quickly observe that nothing much has changed as far as that is concerned.

With estimates of anywhere from more than 900 billion to over a trillion in lump sum funds last year, not a few have expressed the need for greater watchfulness over the budgeting process given that next year the frenzy over the 2016 elections year will have begun with politicians pressed to fatten their campaign kitty.  What more obvious and accessible source is there if not lump sum funds especially for Malacanang whose real “power over the purse” is what underpins the Executive’s influence, if not control over Congress and local government units nationwide. 

But what stands out as a blatant attempt to circumvent and flout the Court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of DAP’s main elements is the redefinition and attempted expansion of savings in the NEP. 

Sec. 67 wants to treat as savings those “portions or balances of any programmed appropriations…which have not been released or obligated as a result of…(a) Discontinuance or abandonment of the program, activity or project (P/A/P) for justifiable cause at any time during the validity of the appropriation; (b) Non-commencement of the P/A/P for which the appropriations is authorized within the first semester of FY 2015, unless the implementing agency shows that the P/A/P may still be undertaken or accomplished within FY 2016.”

This is a complete departure from the definition of savings in previous GAAs pertinent to the above changes wherein savings can only arise if there are portions of appropriations free from obligations “still available after the completion or final discontinuance or abandonment of the work for which the appropriation is authorized.”

This simply means that if a P/A/P is discontinued or abandoned for causes that only the Executive determines and at any time, the funds meant for these P/A/Ps are immediately considered “savings” and available for realignment.  We note that discontinuance is not even qualified by the word “final”. This is tantamount to the Executive department being given very wide and unrestricted latitude to set aside the GAA and choose and pick what P/A/Ps it will implement or augment.

Also, because of this revised definition of savings, failure to commence P/A/Ps is incentivized by the prospect of pooling “savings” that are thereafter left to the unhampered discretion of the Executive Department to use as it deems fit or as its biases and proclivities direct it.

The people, led by the anti-pork barrel groups, are faced with the challenge of defeating this sleight of hand about to be perpetrated by the BSA administration with the willing connivance of his subalterns in Congress.  Given that BSA controls Congress, the other recourse will be to once more challenge the new GAA in the Supreme Court as violative of the Constitution and of the Court’s rulings.

Yet there are still other avenues being pursued that hold out much promise despite being a monumental undertaking at the outset.  We mention here the People’s Initiative (PI) to abolish the pork barrel system that will be launched at a People’s Congress on 23 August in Cebu City.  The “Act to Abolish the Pork Barrel System” is an extraordinary resort to the sovereign power of the people to directly legislate laws especially those that an elitist, corruption-ridden and reactionary Congress and Executive will not countenance.  The PI has a section that prohibits amendment by any other means except another PI providing a guarantee against Congress easily overturning the Act by the mere expedient of passing a repealing law at any time.

There are those who abhor the pork barrel system but have not yet reached the point of calling for the removal from office of BSA (dubbed the Pork Barrel King by the Parliament of the Streets) either through impeachment, resignation or ouster. 

Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that the overt and covert moves  of Malacanang to defend, uphold and even entrench the system of pork in government can only be counterchecked with such a powerful, if daunting, demand that epitomizes the call for accountability from the highest official of the land. #

Published in Business World
4 August 2014


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home