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‘Election year fund’ open to corruption

Hananeel Bordey

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Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon warned that the infrastructure budget and funds for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in the 2021 national budget are in danger of being used for the 2022 elections.

Drilon noted that the 2021 national budget is considered as a budget in preparation for the elections.

“I would like to attribute good faith. You cannot discount that this is part of the preparation for 2022. I have been in Congress long enough to know that if there is anything you should exercise extra vigilance, it is what is called the election-year budget,” he said.

The veteran lawmaker generally said that lump sum allocations in some projects are prone to abuse or corruption.

So far, Drilon said the Senate has flagged the P469-billion lump sum funds under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the at least P16.5 billion for NTF-ELCAC.

Several members of the House of Representatives also questioned the DPWH budget, which listed more than P20 billion in programs allocated to the City of Taguig and Camarines Sur.

The two congressional districts of Taguig were split by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his wife Lani.

Camarines Sur’s first district is also under the care of Speaker Cayetano after the demise of its elected representative Marissa Lourdes Andaya early this year.

The second district of the province is represented by Cayetano’s Nacionalista Party ally LRay Villafuerte.

The funds will be under the care of Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar, son of former Senator Manny and Senator Cynthia Villar — the NP’s power couple.

“That’s our concern. We don’t want to attribute malice. Certainly, it is open to corruption and abuse for the 2022 elections,” Drilon said referring to the lump sum funds under the DPWH and the NTF-ELCAC.

The minority chief said the lack of transparency on the NTF-ELCAC funds have raised red flags on the allocations made by the Executive Department.

He said it is worrisome to provide P20 million to each barangay cleared of insurgency and the description of some projects was tagged as “soft programs” that include livelihood training, assistance to indigents in the form of medical, educational and transportation assistance.

“These are precisely the items which you recall in the past enabled the corruption. We recall the P728-M fertilizer scam. These funds could no longer be accounted. You remember there were ghost scholars and ghost trainings at the TESDA,” he explained.

“This is the reason why we are opposing this. Even in a CoA (Commission on Audit) audit, it is almost impossible for CoA to perform to audit this,” he added, noting that the task force will be ‘playing God’ in the release of funds.

Drilon said they will push its abolition if possible and will ensure transparency in the programs implemented by the NTF-ELCAC.

Just like the funds for the task force, Drilon said they will scrutinize the lump sum and re-appropriations flagged by Senator Panfilo Lacson under the DPWH budget.

“This is something that we will watch out for. This P469-B must be disaggregated. Otherwise, this will become a lump sum fund where the participation of Congress will become again after the enactment, which is prohibited under a Supreme Court decision. It is very critical therefore that P469-B should be identified,” he said.

Drilon, on the other hand, declined to comment on the row among some congressmen over the alleged inequitable distribution of funds for infrastructure projects under the 2021 National Expenditures Program.

“I will not want to respond to that. Inter-parliamentary courtesy prevents me from doing so. But we note that a statement of a certain congressman who said that they are frustrated about lack of transparency on discretionary items,” he said.

Drilon said the Congress should also decide whether it will prioritize the supply side or the demand side in terms of funding.

This is a matter that should be resolved as the budget for the Department of Health (DoH) only came fifth in the ranking despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a good debate. This is an ongoing debate. We’ll look at the budget as a whole because we are in a pandemic. This is a very peculiar budget. This is the first time we are confronted by this situation,” he said.

“Congress must decide which one to support more — the so-called demand side, meaning those who are needing the funds such as the social services. It’s a debate as to what should be given more emphasis: social services of infrastructure,” he added.

For him, the Department of Finance and the Department of Budget and Management are seen leaning towards funding the infrastructure more than providing cash assistance to the consumers.

“Where do we put our money at least for next year? Which should be given more support? The infra projects or social service? When the decision is made, then you carry out that policy,” he said.

“Who needs them most? Our fellows who are now out of work and have less to eat — they need amelioration? Remember there is no (Social Amelioration Program) in the 2021 budget. This is a debate that we will have to resolve. This is a very crucial debate,” he added.

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