MANILA - The government's anti-communist task force will suffer a P24 billion budget cut next year following its failure to fully report how it spent P16 billion supposedly to help local villages this year, Senate finance committee chair Sen. Sonny Angara disclosed Tuesday.
Hours before his sponsorship speech for the proposed P5 trillion national budget for 2022 at the plenary, Angara said that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflicts' (NTF-ELCAC) proposed budget for 2022 as stated in the General Appropriations Bill was set at P30.45 billion.
Of that, P28.1 billion will go to the Local Government Support Fund – Support to the Barangay Development Fund (LGSF-SBDP).
Angara said P24 billion will be slashed from the LGSF-SBDP allocation.
"We cannot make a judgment really if the program has been a success or not, because we have received very little information,” he said in a virtual conference.
The slashed amount will instead be given to the health sector, particularly on the government’s vaccination and booster procurement program that needs P60-61 billion.
Besides NTF-ELCAC, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works and Highways also suffered budget cuts.
Angara said the President can veto their applied budget reductions, but that would result to the NTF-ELCAC receiving zero budget.
The President has the option to realign Special Funds or Discretionary Funds to augment the NTF-ELCAC’s budget if he wants to, he noted.
Duterte last month defended the allocation of funds for the NTF-ELCAC, which has been criticized for supposedly red tagging female celebrities, some lawmakers, and Senate workers, among others.
The Procurement Service - Department of Budget and Management meantime will be given until Dec. 31, 2023 to disperse all the “parked funds” given by various government agencies. Any remaining budget afterwards will be returned to the National Treasury that would result in reduced budget for the concerned agencies, Angara said.
The Senate finance committee is looking at applying the same rule to the Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC) where many agencies also park their funds, the senator said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon lauded Angara’s decisions.
“I fully support Sen Angara’s position on the reduction of the P28 billion NTF-ELCAC budget. Plus, there is another P2 billion budget also for NTF-ELCAC in the budgets of various agencies which we will move to be deleted,” Drilon said.
He added: “Likewise, I support the provision that will require PS-DBM to disburse the funds it holds for the various national agencies by Dec. 31, 2023. A similar provision should be made to apply to PITC’s which have billions of “parked” funds in its coffers.”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who last year sponsored the NTF-ELCAC budget, also threw his support to the slashing of the body’s budget, stressing the need to punish anyone who would be found to have misused the fund.
“In the words of former DBM Secretary Benjamin Diokno, when he was espousing the cash-based budgeting system - 'use it or lose it'. I say, misused funds are far worse than unused appropriations," he said in a statement.
House Assistant Minority Leader and Gabriela Partylist Rep. Arlene Brosas welcomed the cut, saying "bringing it to zero would be better."
"This is precisely what we are pushing for during the House budget deliberations, as the Task Force failed to provide any legal authority and documentation to justify the 'General's Pork' masquerading as LGU projects," she said in a statement.
"The P24 billion freed up can be reallocated to Protective Services programs of the DSWD to augment standby funds for cash aid. There is also a separate P2 billion NTF-ELCAC funding tucked under different agencies which need to be realigned to restore the budget cuts in several public and GOCC hospitals for 2022," Brosas added.
Rights groups Karapatan also welcomed the decision of the Senate panel.
"With the widespread public clamor against the NTF-ELCAC, and amid this public health crisis, it is clearly our struggling health workers who deserve the people’s taxes over the NTF-ELCAC’s devilish cabal of liars, red-taggers, war criminals, and human rights violators. Funneling billions of pesos to State violence and repression while millions of Filipinos are suffering is simply shameless," it said in a statement.
The group pushed for further defunding of the task force, saying its budget "should be reallocated to addressing the people’s needs, such as ayuda."
NTF-ELCAC vice chair and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said he hopes the panel understands "that we are addressing a 53-year insurgency led by the CPP-NPA-NDF Terrorist triad."
"I also hope that our senators will take to heart the plight of people in the barangays affected by the prolonged conflict. While I understand that COVID-19 is the clear and present danger that we have to address, I hope they recognize the scourge that has caused stunted growth of the countryside and in effect on the nation," he said in a statement.
"We have spent almost a trillion to combat COVID-19, let's have the political will to fight the long-standing number one political security threat in our country."
Angara said the proposed 2022 national spending will be a “COVID-Recovery Budget.”
The Department of Health’s 2021 budget of P101 billion will be doubled next year, to the tune of P226.7 billion, or a total of P312 billion if the proposed funds for hospitals, medical scholarships, contact tracing and booster vaccines are considered.
The Senate finance committee has allotted P51 billion as well for health care workers’ risk allowance, he said.
“Important ang ating pagpapalakas ng health system, 'no, so we added to a lot of it sa hospitals, yung mga major hospitals natin, specialized hospitals, and of course PGH, a lot of retrofitting there,” Angara said.
Aside from the health sector, assistance will be also extended to public utility drivers through fuel subsidy, farmers, unemployed, vulnerable sectors, small businesses, he said.
There will also be additional funding for State Colleges and Universities.
The Commission on Elections will receive a P27 billion-budget in 2022, an election year, Angara said.
Angara believes next year's national budget will see more empowered local governments with the full implementation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Mandanas-Garcia petition, which will finally grant LGUs 40 percent of the national government’s tax collection.
The Senate will start its plenary deliberation of the proposed 2022 national budget on Wednesday.
The chamber plans to adjust its weekly sessions to Monday-Friday next week, from the usual Monday-Wednesday schedule, as it targets to approve the budget on final reading by the end of the month.
It aims to hold then the bicameral conference committee on Dec. 2-3, after which the proposed national budget will be ratified.