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Much ado about nothing

It would be better if the ‘pork hunters’ reserve their judgment until the General Appropriations Bill is in their hands lest they be accused of playing for exposure.

TEB

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The Palace’s anxiety over next year’s P4.5 trillion budget keeping to its timetable has returned, and the source of the strain on President Rodrigo Duterte is now the Senate.

Senators Panfilo Lacson and Franklin Drilon have indicated some P326 billion ‘’lump sum’’ appropriations have been tucked into the proposed P666 billion budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) under the National Expenditure Program that the Department of Budget and Management crafted.

Two things stand out in the current situation. Senators agree the lump sums are not unconstitutional if these were included during the budget process, and that both legislators have not yet seen the House version of the General Appropriations Bill, since its final form is still being drafted by the so-called small committee formed to polish the bill that will be transmitted to the Senate.

Lacson said regularity can’t be presumed in the bill, including the P20 billion worth of institutional amendments, which are mostly increases in the allocation for the eventual procurement of the vaccine to end the coronavirus blight.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Senate Finance Committee chair Sonny Angara had invoked the presumption of regularity in the House budget process.

It seems Lacson had concluded that pork is present in the House draft while admitting that he has not seen yet the document.

‘’We have yet to see the transmitted copy of the General Appropriations Bill as approved on third and final reading, as transmitted to the Senate,’’ Lacson ceded.

‘’Until we see that, we cannot really tell or say if there’s pork or not in the House of Representatives’ version of the budget,” he said.

So, what exactly is he crowing about?

While not seeing the final form of the House version, he claimed amending the budget after third and final reading is unconstitutional.

‘’It’s very clear, there’s no other interpretation in that provision under the Constitution that after the third and final reading of any bill, including the GAB, no amendment shall be allowed thereto.’’

Adjustments were made in the process because of the cash-based scheme that now guides the use of the budget, which provides that allocations can only be spent within a calendar year and the excess goes to the treasury.

The past graft-ridden obligation-based process allowed savings, which are then recycled as discretionary funds of the President.

That has been removed, but still huge projects have to be funded over a stretch of years.

The pork barrel, otherwise known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a 2013 ruling.

Then President Noynoy Aquino resurrected pork under the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which was launched quietly, and some P142 billion, or in some accounts P200 billion, was recycled from the national budget from 2011 when it was created. It existed until 2014 when the Supreme Court struck down the acts that created it as unconstitutional.

It later turned out the DAP was the Liberal Party’s slush fund to persuade Congress to do its biddings, including the ouster of the late former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The discovery of the DAP elicited from Noynoy an “I am not a thief” speech in November 2013.

After the DAP was dissolved, insertions in the budget became prevalent as the main source of funds for legislators.

When Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Ben Diokno was the Budget Secretary he explained that items included in the process of crafting the General Appropriations Bill can’t be considered pork.

“These are (funded) projects that are supposed to benefit residents of congressional districts. They are not pork barrel. Call it (by) any other name, but not pork barrel,” he maintained.

“Our budget is consistent with the Supreme Court decision,” Diokno said.

It would be better if the “pork hunters” reserve their judgment until the General Appropriations Bill is in their hands lest they be accused of playing for exposure.

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