Sun, 10 Dec 2023

By: CMFR Staff

Posted on: September 20, 2023, 9:40 am

THE NATIONAL budget discussion is tedious and technical. But it remains a core process that determines how the government fulfills its mandate of public service. The process can be daunting to ordinary citizens, but this should not deter the scrutiny and critical evaluation of the allocations. 

This year stands out as the proposed budget hearings have received unprecedented public attention, a subject even of memes and jokes in social media. In particular, social media critics focused on the special treatment given by the House of Representatives to the requests of Vice President Sara Duterte for confidential funds (CFs) for the two offices she occupies: the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education. Meanwhile, in mainstream media, criticism was presented mainly as coming from opposition legislators. 

The concern that confidential and intelligence funds CIFs have ballooned into billions is warranted. For the Office of the President (OP), there was a 400 percent increase in the amounts requested by President Benigno Aquino III for his last year to the amount requested by President Rodrigo Duterte in his first year of office. 

Setting the trend for blown-up funds, the elder Duterte requested PHP 1.25 billion annually from 2017 to 2019. From 2020 to 2022, the amount was a consistent  PHP2.25 billion as an annual allocation. In glaring contrast, the OVP had zero confidential and intelligence funds for Jejomar Binay and for Leni Robredo.

The above pattern was only discussed in few news accounts, such as Frontline Tonight and Rappler. Reports did not get involved with rational justification for these increases.

Meanwhile, the House on September 4 extended "parliamentary courtesy" to Vice President Duterte, approving the OVP's budget request-including a CF worth PHP 500 million-swiftly and without question.

The amount itself should have raised questions and provoked debate; not to speak of other concerns related to CFs released to the OVP in late 2022. Unfortunately, the ruling alliance in Congress dominated the process. It has been left to the small minority to keep the matter in the public eye. Opposition lawmakers Senator Risa Hontiveros and ACT Party-list Representative France Castro criticized the transfer of CF from the OP to the OVP in 2022, stressing the fact that there was zero allocation for it. 

So far, Duterte still has not explained why her office had PHP 125 million CF in 2022, saying instead that she had no respect for either Hontiveros or Castro. Administration officials readily came to her defense. 

From September 7 to 14, print, TV and online news outfits picked up official statements justifying the OVP's confidential funds and its supposed legality, all issued through written communications or media interviews. For easy reference, Rappler on September 15 duly listed in a single report Duterte's defenders: Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro and Marikina Representative Stella Quimbo, who is also vice chair of the House Committee on Appropriations.  

Zy-za Suzara, executive director of think-tank iLEAD that monitors the national budget, told Rappler in an August 13 report that granting confidential funds for civilian agencies whose functions are not related to national security "would be the norm" in succeeding administrations. But agencies have been quicker to jump on the confidential fund bandwagon.

24 Oras reported on September 12 that 28 civilian agencies have requested their respective CFs. The report did not enumerate what these agencies were, but the Philippine Daily Inquirer on September 15 included in the list the departments of Environment and Natural Resources; Social Welfare and Development; Finance; Transportation; and Information and Communications Technology, the latter being one of the agencies with the highest amount requested at PHP 300 million. DICT Secretary John Ivan Uy said his agency needed the funding to "fight scammers," Reporters did not follow up with him whether the ongoing implementation of the SIM registration law had been proven useless after all. Frontline Tonight on September 14 noted that aside from the OP (PHP 2.25 billion), OVP (PHP 500 million) and the DICT,  the Justice and Education departments requested the highest CFs at PHP 471 million and PHP 150 million, respectively.

Media also reported that the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), which already has a CF of PHP 100 million this year, is using the fund to fight illegal gambling. But some lawmakers were not convinced that the PCSO is using the fund properly, as the office has only spent PHP 25 million so far. Meanwhile, Senator Raffy Tulfo argued that the Department of Migrant Workers needs its own CF to curb illegal recruitment and trafficking.

Media should turn to the Commission on Audit (COA) for its perspective, as it subjects every agency to its auditing procedures. These sources should identify the ease with which public money can be legally used for personal benefit.

Unfortunately, Ombudsman Samuel Martires, whose position is supposed to guard against corruption, suggested to the House that budget provisions requiring the publication of annual audit reports be stricken down. These are the same documents that the COA uploads on its website for public information. Some online reports correctly noted that Martires' record has been consistent in terms of setting up legal barriers to hinder public access to vital information, including his  imposition of more stringent rules against access to Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of government officials.

Journalists should probably focus more on the people and their sentiments, draw out the voices that will express the current strain that the price hikes have imposed even on those with means, but most especially on the poor. In these times of hardship, shouldn't the poor be the priority in the formulation of the national budget?

The budget is the central fiscal policy document that will determine how much leeway public officials have in spending taxpayers' money. The time for questions and discussion of what serves public interest is limited. When the budget is passed, there is little else that can be done. It will have been decided in favor of those in power, their allies and their friends. 

The question is simple enough: Have elected officials demonstrated that they deserve public trust about how they spend confidential funds? 

Also reported from other fronts:

Source: CMFR

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