Congress bicam panel retains P19-B anti-insurgency fund in 2021 budget

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 09 2020 04:11 PM

Congress bicam panel retains P19-B anti-insurgency fund in 2021 budget 1
Full-fledged members of the Communist Party of the Philippines conduct a post-celebration of its 49th founding anniversary. Mark Saludes, ABS-CBN News, December 31, 2017/File

MANILA - Lawmakers on Wednesday retained the P19-billion funding for the government's anti-insurgency program in the 2021 budget despite calls from opposition lawmakers to realign a portion of the sum to COVID-19 and disaster response programs.

"Wala kami binawas sa NTF-ELCAC," House Appropriations Committee chair ACT-CIS Party-list Rep. Eric Go Yap told reporters when asked about the budget for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

(We did not reduce anything from the NTF-ELCAC.)

The task force was recently linked to red tagging sectoral lawmakers, drawing calls to be defunded.

Under the executive department's original proposal, the secretariat would receive some P16.4 billion for the development of villages deemed "cleared" of communist rebels. Another P3 billion would be spent for the task forces' operational expenses next year.

"The Senate definitely didn't touch it. I don't think the House touched it," Senate Committee on Finance chair Sen. Sonny Angara said in a press conference.

"Yeah, something like that. Approximately," he said, when asked if the NTF-ELCAC would still receive P19 billion under the 2021 budget signed after bicameral deliberations.

Minority senators earlier pushed to realign a portion of the fund, saying the budget's priorities seemed "askew" as the security sector gets more funding than programs for housing and social amelioration.

"I am not saying we don't need to support our security sector... We have to... But the anti-insurgency budget can be postponed for 1 year," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said in a statement last month.

"My proposal is to increase the vaccination budget to P16 billion or half of what is required to have a herd or population immunity," he said, noting that the second half of the vaccines may be included in the 2022 budget.

The bicameral panel earlier dropped an amendment in the 2021 spending bill that sought to increase programmed appropriations for COVID-19 vaccines to P8 billion, and instead retained the executive branch's original proposal of P2.5 billion for the purchase of the drug.

Left-leaning party-list representatives urged other lawmakers to "defund" and "abolish" the NTF-ELCAC.

"Aside from being defunded the NTF-ELCAC should also be abolished because it is one of the roadblocks to a peaceful political settlement of the armed conflict," the Makabayan bloc said in a statement.

"It is also an instigator of vicious red-tagging, harassment against activists, critics, and the opposition and puts their lives and liberty in danger," said the group of lawmakers, accused of being part of the "legal front" of the communist movement in the country.

"Let us not put these billions of taxpayers' money to waste by letting it be used as a pork barrel fund for spreading lies, fake news, and red-tagging."

Angara belied allegations that the 2021 budget was riddled with pork or discretionary funds for lawmakers.

"We complied with the Supreme Court decision on pork barrel. We avoided lump sums, we itemized them," the senator said.

Discretionary funds in Congress were abolished in 2013 after the multibillion-peso pork barrel racket, which involved the diversion of state funds to ghost NGOs, was busted. 

"Secondly, there is no post-enactment identification or participation on the part of legislators," he said.

NTF-ELCAC was created via an Executive Order in December 2018, amid on-and-off peace negotiations between government and communist rebels. President Rodrigo Duterte announced the permanent termination of the talks in March 2019. 

The Senate and the House of Representatives is expected to ratify the 2021 national budget during their respective plenary sessions on December 9, giving President Rodrigo Duterte adequate time to sign the measure before the current spending bill expires on December 31.

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