Social Watch Philippines' Briones scores Senate over definition of savings

Prof. Leonor Briones.

The budget watchdog Social Watch Philippines on Friday criticized the Senate for retaining the new definition of savings in the 2015 budget that it approved, and the possibility of funding for an expense item being declared as savings at any time of the year.

"Such a redefinition can perpetuate the pork barrel system and mechanisms similar to the Disbursement Acceleration Program, both of which have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court," the group said in a statement.

According to the Senate approved budget, savings are defined as "portions or balances of any released appropriations in the GAA which have not been obligated." The House-approved bill, meanwhile, does not require that the funds be released to be declared as savings, only that such funds have not been obligated."

"However, this does not reclaim the Congress' vaunted power of the purse, as savings can still be declared by the Executive at virtually any time of the year, as long as the funds have been released in appropriations," Leonor Briones, lead convenor of Social Watch Philippines said.

The Senate has approved on third and final reading the P2.606 trillion budget proposed for next year.

The House of Representatives earlier approved the proposed appropriations.

The two chambers are set to sit down in bicameral conference committee meetings to reconcile their respective versions.

Sec. 68 (b) of the Amendments to General Provisions also states that savings can result from the "discontinuance or abandonment of an ongoing program, activity or project (P/A/P) by the head of the agency concerned due to causes not attributable to the fault or negligence of the agency concerned which would not render it possible for the agency to implement said P/A/P, at any time during the validity of the appropriations."

"The issue of when to declare savings is an important question we should be asking. With the budget approved by both houses of Congress, the budget will still be primarily under the control of the Executive. If the Executive chooses to, it can declare savings from released appropriations and use it to fund DAP-like projects," Briones, a former National Treasurer, said.

Briones said that the Senate finance committee declared it complied with the Supreme Court ruling on the DAP through a new general provision on the "Meaning of Augmentation" in Sec. 69, "which states that savings cannot be used to augment a non-existent Programs/Activities/Projects through the use of an appropriation not otherwise authorized in the subject General Appropriations Act."

However, Briones noted, "the provision does not address the Executive's extensive clout over the budget and offers no clarity over the time frame of the declaration of savings.

"This cuts across issues of transparency, accountability and the balance of powers among the three branches of government."

"We challenge both the government to retain the proper definition of savings, and we challenge the public to engage this issue further. We've said this time and again, that it is our money and that it should go where it ought to," Briones added.

Source: Interaksyon.