Philippines: Aquino told not to take pork barrel hostage

NoyNoy AquinoSource: Business Mirror

Philippine President-elect for the Liberal Party “Noynoy” Aquino was told not to withhold the budget for social services by activists including Social Watch's lead convenor in the country. Filipino legislators are allocated large sums of the annual national budget but they are often accused of appropriation of government spending for localized projects also called "pork barrel" spending.

22 May 2010

BUDGET activists warned presidential front-runner Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III against taking  lawmakers’ pork barrel hostage, as well as impounding the budget intended for basic social services, saying that doing so will make him no different from President Arroyo.

Leonor Magtolis-Briones, lead convenor of Social Watch Philippines, and Jonathan Ronquillo, environment campaigner of La Liga Policy Institute (La Liga), said Mrs. Arroyo is notorious for withholding funds, which hampers the delivery of social services.

Briones said Aquino should make it a point that the budget is released by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) “on time, all the time.”

She said that during Mrs. Arroyo’s term, the impounded budget for 2009 alone reached P140 billion.

“Imagine what P140 billion could do to improve basic social services like education and health,” she said.

“It could have also improved agriculture and the environment,” Ronquillo said for his part.

The impounded budget represents various fund transfers from different government agencies.  As “government savings,” it becomes highly discretionary and its use is subject to presidential prerogative.

“Since last year, the ABI [Alternative Budget Initiative] has been calling for the release of impounded funds, including funds for health and agriculture programs in the 2008 budget such as P1.8 billion for family health, P400 million for the tuberculosis program, P100 million for purchase of autoclaves, P100 million for the promotion of organic agriculture, and P2 million for training for system of rice intensification [SRI] small farmers; and funds in the 2009 General Appropriations Act, including P95 million for Protected Areas and Wildlife Management and P1 billion for reforestation,” Briones said.

The impounded budget could have been used by Mrs. Arroyo for purposes other than what was approved by Congress, including election, specifically to aid administration candidates in the recently-concluded national and local elections.

Briones said while the GMA-approved budget for 2010 may have tied the hands of her successor, much of the 2010 national budget remains highly discretionary and subject to the prerogative of the Office of the President.

She said the claim of Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman of Lakas-Kampi-CMD that Section 67 of the General Appropriations Act of 2010, which calls for the prohibition against impoundment of appropriations, may have been covered by President Arroyo’s conditional veto of the budget.  It also means that the issue is subject to debate and interpretation, she said.

“What is dangerous and disturbing is the pronouncement of LP spokesperson Butch Abad of [the party’s] plan to use pork barrel funds to win the Speakership of the House. This will make president-elect Aquino no different from GMA,” she said.

Ronquillo warned Aquino against “messing with the budget,” saying it will only create a wrong impression of his being “interested” in controlling the people’s purse like Mrs. Arroyo did.

“The best thing to do is for Aquino to give back the power of the purse to Congress and make sure that the funds are released on time,” he said.

The group, which acts as the secretariat of the Environment Cluster of ABI, is a vocal critic of President Arroyo for impounding the budget, particularly the 2009 budget for Protected Areas and National Parks, and two important wildlife -conservation projects—for pawikan or sea turtle and the Philippine tamaraw.

The group also hit the DBM for withholding the release of P1 billion under Mrs. Arroyo’s own pet project, the Comprehensive Livelihood Emergency Employment Program for massive tree-planting activities which could have provided jobs and livelihood to hundreds of thousands of upland dwellers. 

*By Jonathan L. Mayuga