Militants bare P500-b budget for LP war chest

MANILA — More than 200 pages of “errata” that the Department of Budget and Management is inserting into the 2015 spending plan without congressional scrutiny will constitute a P500 billion blank check for President Benigno Aquino III and the ruling Liberal Party that can be used in the 2016 national elections, opposition lawmakers charged Monday.

The bulk of the amount or some P423 billion has been allocated to the Department of the Interior and Local Governments, headed by the presumptive Liberal Party standard bearer in 2016, Manuel Roxas II, said House Senior Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares.

Colmenares said the funds, on top of the department’s regular P33 billion allocation, has been earmarked for “Assistance to LGUs.”

Some 269 pages of errata were first submitted on Sept. 26, but withdrawn the same day, hours before the P2.606 trillion national budget for 2015 was approved on second reading.

The Budget Department withdrew the errata after ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio protested that the changes represented “midnight insertions” that the plenary had neither scrutinized nor debated.

On Oct. 3, while Congress was on a three-week break, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad resubmitted the errata to Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, chairman of the House committee on appropriations and concurrent head of the small appropriations panel, which continued to hold meetings and scrutinized the amendments.

Ungab maintained the errata was well-within the General Appropriations Act that had been discussed fully by the panel and the plenary.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said there was nothing illegal in the submission of the errata even after the national budget was approved on second reading.

The opposition lawmakers got hold of a copy of the errata Monday and insisted that these amendments to the budget could not be approved because they had not been scrutinized or debated.

The errata also contained some P8 billion in “contingent funds” for the Bangsamoro, which is envisioned to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

This was far higher than the P2.5 billion allocated to the Bangsamoro in the budget after deliberation by Ungab’s committee and the plenary.

In a letter to Ungab, Abad said some P3.28 billion has also been allocated for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meetings and was labeled “International Commitment Funds” for hosting the APEC meetings.

In leafing through the errata, Colmenares said some P1.6 billion was earmarked for the Department of Finance-Bureau of Customs.

Abad said the DoF-BoC allocation was for “operating requirements and various locally-funded projects.”

“We have just received a copy of the 269 page errata of the 2015 national budget and it is as we feared, the DBM undermined the power of Congress by passing errata that have never been deliberated upon in the committee or plenary level. We have never deliberated on such items as the P423 billion fund for the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the P8 billion contingent fund for the Bangsamoro or the P3.281 billion for the APEC or even the P1.6 billion for the Department of Finance-Bureau of Customs as with other items,” Colmenares said.

“This is a whole new budget and if they do not subject this to deliberations based on our rules then we may be forced to go to the Supreme Court. The court should prohibit this practice so that the people’s coffers would not be raided by unscrupulous politicians,” said Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate.

Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon and Abakada Rep. Jonathan dela Cruz expressed suspicions that the reinsertion of the errata in the national budget would guarantee President Aquino and the ruling Liberal Party a blank check to disburse funds that did not pass through congressional scrutiny.

Ridon described the reinsertion as a “offensive and treacherous act” on part of the Executive Department and the House leadership.

“For the past months, members of the House minority have painstakingly questioned every nook and cranny of the national budget, only to discover in the end that DBM will still have its way. As a member of the House minority and the Makabayan bloc, this representation takes offense in how DBM and the House majority are jointly revising the budget to their own liking,” Ridon said.

“This is not right. Congress cannot just pass the budget without it passing through congressional scrutiny. We want to know from which item the DBM realigned the funds and which projects were affected,” Dela Cruz said.

“We demand that the House leadership and the Palace be transparent and make public the errata to show where they intend to bring the funds,” Dela Cruz told the Manila Standard.

He said the House leadership must realize that the House is violating the law in its attempt to pass the budget with new allocations that were not revealed to the public.

“Billions of pesos are lost in an irregular budget process like this,” Colmenares said.

He urged the public to be more vigilant when it came to the budget, including a bid to redefine “savings” to give the President greater leeway in impounding funds from some projects and diverting them to other programs without congressional approval.

Ridon said the DBM, in connivance with the House leadership, was treating the national budget like a blank check.

The House minority, he said, simply cannot allow the passage of a budget that contains revisions that were not even disclosed to the House plenary.

“Coaxing Congress to approve realignments and amendments without first disclosing their nature is a treacherous act,” said Ridon. “How will the public know if these revisions are not midnight insertions added only to favor certain political entities?”

“This is especially true with regard to the issue of the so-called errata. The Makabayan bloc has received information that DBM’s errata contain substantive changes that are in line with the Palace’s effort to legalize the Disbursement Acceleration Program,” he added.

“The national budget is not a blank check that the Palace or the House leadership can fill in without the benefit of public discussion and participation. These shady, under-the-table revisions to the budget only highlight the fact that our country is under Aquino’s budget dictatorship,” Ridon said.

He vowed that the Makabayan bloc, of which he is part, would exhaust all efforts to stop he changes, including going to the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the House is poised to approve on third and final reading the national budget with the errata submitted by the executive department.

Congress is set to go on an All Saints’ Day break this week and will resume sessions in the third week of November.