‘Midnight insertions’ in 2015 budget hit

MANILA — The Palace inserted 100 pages of undisclosed changes to the 2015 budget just hours before its approval by the House of Representatives, including “midnight insertions” that allow President Benigno Aquino III to impound, realign and divert committed funds halfway through the year, opposition lawmakers said.

The insertions were discovered by ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio at about 4 p.m. Friday when he learned the Department of Budget and Management was carrying 100 pages or errata with several amendments to the National Expenditure Program.

This prompted House Senior Deputy Minority Leader Neri Colmenares to urge Congress on Sunday to withdraw the House’s unanimous approval on second reading of the national budget at 11:52 p.m. Friday and subject the errata to plenary debates.

“The DBM is pulling a fast one on Congress by submitting the errata at the last minute to legitimize the impoundment of funds just like they did in the illegal P144-billion Disbursement Acceleration Program,” Tinio told the Manila Standard.

“I urge the House to withdraw its approval of the budget until after the DBM’s errata had been subjected to congressional debate and scrutiny,” Colmenares said over radio dzBB.

Tinio said at about 7:30 p.m. during his interpellation before the plenary, the DBM officially submitted the errata to the chairman of the House committee on appropriations Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, who was also the sponsor of the Palace-proposed budget.

Tinio protested the insertions, arguing that these did not undergo strict scrutiny by the panel and that no debate took place in the plenary on the amendments that the Palace wanted inserted, prompting Ungab to admit the errata would be considered by the small committee that would meet during the break to consider all amendments to the six-volume General Appropriations Act.

“The errata contained major amendments to various major projects. And these provisions would allow the President to realign projects such as major infrastructure projects to another project if he so desires. These realigned projects did not undergo congressional scrutiny much like the DAP-funded projects,” Tinio said.

Emerging from the budget approval on second reading close to midnight Friday, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. announced the House need not pass a law to redefine savings because special provisions had been inserted in the national budget that will allow the President to realign funds mid-year.

Instead, the Speaker said the House will exercise its “oversight powers” to periodically check on whether or not the budget is being spent “judiciously.”

Tinio argued that the DBM’s submission of the errata at the last minute was the Palace’s way of getting around congressional scrutiny.

“The Palace knew that post-enactment realignments were illegal and so it tried to make midnight insertions. Had we not discovered it, Congress could have carried the errata by approving it along with the budget but with midnight insertions that were kept from Congress and the public,” Tinio said.

Ungab argued that it has always been a tradition that the DBM submits errata.

Before it adjourned its sessions for a three-week break, the plenary on Friday elected the members of the special appropriations committee, whose members mostly belong to the ruling Liberal Party.

The small committee counted as members LP officials such as Ungab, House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II and Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone.

Tinio said the Liberals also tried to ease out the minority bloc by nominating House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, who was still recuperating from a recent kidney transplant.

“The Liberals knew Ronnie is still on sick leave. They really did not want to give it to Neri [Colmenares], who, being a deputy, is supposed to take over if Ronnie is away. Still, the plenary named Zamora,” said Tinio, who is also a member of the minority bloc.

Colmenares said the plenary had already terminated the period of debates and interpellations without the errata having been discussed.

Ungab said the small committee would take care of the Palace-proposed amendments.

“The budget approval needs to be withdrawn. After the second reading, there is no more plenary debate on the budget. The third and final reading would only approve the entire budget, along with the individual amendments. But the DBM’s errata provisions had not been subjected to debates and scrutiny,” Colmenares said.

After the third and final reading, Colmenares said the bicameral conference committee would be constituted to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the GAA.

“The errata contain reprioritization. It redefines savings. Reprioritization means pork. Any reprioritized project that did not undergo congressional scrutiny becomes President Aquino’s pork barrel,” Colmenares said.

“Why have Congress approve a budget if you are going to re-prioritize [funds] and term them as savings?” he added.

“The DBM admitted that it has errata on the approved budget. So we’re going to demand that the moment they insert the errata, these must be subject to deliberations again. We haven’t seen the errata. So we approved the wrong budget,” Colmenares told dzBB.

Colmenares said the minority bloc would give the majority a choice: “Toss the budget back to the committee level or reopen the plenary debates.”

Colmenares said the minority was not out to delay the approval of the budget because it did not want a reenacted budget, which would give the President even more leeway in shuffling funds.

“But we have to deliberate on the errata. We don’t want to get in trouble with the Supreme Court again,” said Colmenares, referring to the DAP, parts of which were declared unconstitutional.

Colmenares accused the DBM of violating the rules to make the insertions.

“That’s in fact a violation of the rules because we have already passed the budget on second reading yet there are errata that we don’t know anything about. The DBM kept the House in the dark. So it’s as good as if the second reading did not take place,” Colmenares said.

“We are very much concerned and suspicious about the errata since these involve billions in public funds and this budget is even tagged as an election budget. We want to know the contents of the errata and how much exactly these involved,” Colmenares said.

Tinio said the DBM refused to give him a copy of the one-inch-thick errata since the single copy that was submitted to Ungab’s panel has yet to be photocopied to furnish all congressmen.

“We would definitely demand that we be given copies of the errata. They almost go away with it. We will not allow them to hide things from the public and we will not allow Congress to simply grant the Palace’s whims and caprices,” Tinio said.