Poverty watchdog urges public to be on guard vs 'lump sums, hidden pork' in 2023 national budget

Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 25 2022 12:53 AM | Updated as of Nov 25 2022 04:00 PM

Social Watch Philippines, an NGO whose advocacy is to eradicate poverty and promote social protection, urged the public to be vigilant as far as the proposed P5.268-trillion 2023 national budget is concerned.

Interviewed by ABS-CBN News Thursday, Social Watch PH Senior Budget Specialist Alce Quitalig, mentioned the Special Purpose Fund, central offices’ budgets and agency lump sump appropriations as among those that must be guarded by the public.

The SPF usually falls under the “For Later Release” items, which, according to Quitalig, is in full control by the Office of the President.

“Itong mga funds na ito maa-identify lang ang kanilang final purpose, during the budget execution, not during the budget legislation. So ibig sabihin, wala nang scrutiny yun ng Congress. That would be na parang malaking leeway na doon ang Executive,” Quitalig said.

“Yung access naman kasi nung Special Purpose Fund, basically the directive will come from the Office of the President. And then of course, kung saan yung assigned na agency, dun na magi-implenent dun, sa kanila mapupunta yun. But the problem there is, because it is a Special Purpose Fund, the discretion of the Executive mataas yun,” he explained.

“Nung previous times nangyayari diyan nagkakaroon pa ng realignment. Special Purpose Fund, to Special Purpose Fund to Contingency. Na hindi na nata-track, hindi nan are-report sa Congress,” Quitalig added.

What’s worse he said, the accountability aspect in checking the SPF is weak because it is usually not part of the Commission on Audit scrutiny, unless an urgent request for special audit is forwarded to the agency.

“They (COA) will audit dun sa agencies, kung may Special Purpose Fund na nakalagak doon sa agency tapos nilagay nila yun sa COA audit report eh di yun. Otherwise, eh di wala,” he said.

Social Watch PH data said this year’s national budget has a total of P457.32 billion SPF, lower than 2023’s P615.8 billion appropriation.

The national budget in recent years meantime, no longer carries an item for lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

But despite the absence of the PDAF term, lawmakers’ “pork barrel” can still be found in the General Appropriations Bill through “Congress Introduced Releases” items, Quitalig said.

“Ang hirap na kasi nyang i-trace ngayon dahil it’s outlawed, but, meron pa ring pork barrel. It may be a different name, parang wala nang pangalan… may mga parked funds… tapos meron din kasing budget items na nakalagay lang sya na under lang sya central office,” Quitalig said.

And added: “Of course other agencies would have lump sum appropriations din.”

Meanwhile, the public, he said, should also be conscious about an the “unprogrammed fund” which for 2023 amounts to P615.829 billion, or higher than this year’s P457.32 billion.

“That shows you na malaki rin ang parang, yung prioritization ba na dapat pinopondohan ng taxes ay gusto natin ay loan. Gusto natin mangutang. Hindi naman talaga masamang mangutang. Pero siyemore, you have to manage our debt,” Quitalig pointed out.

For Social Watch PH, the 2023 national budget still aims to deliver President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr’s campaign promises like in the fields of agriculture, public works and health sectors.

But more areas will be given a push, if only the Marcos Jr administration did not corner P9 billion budget for Confidential and Intelligence Funds (CIFs), Quitalig stressed.

For 2023, a total of P157.2 million out of the P4.3 billion Confidential Fund (CF) has been realigned by the Senate. The P4.9 billion Intelligence Fund (IF), however, remained untouched, according to Social Watch PH.

In 2016, the CIF was only P1.7 billion, but jumped to P6 billion to P9 billion from 2017 to this year, the budget expert said.

“That’s too much. Because yung P9 billion na yun, you can give it to child protection budget, for women and children protection unit, for environment initiatives. Malaki sobra yung P9 billion. Marami na ang pwedeng magawa roon for social development programs,” Quitalig said.

The CIF can only be audited if the sitting Commission on Audit chairman orders its special division to audit it.

GUARDING THE FUNDS

Quitalig said, their group is expecting the full and effective implementation of Senator Risa Hontiveros’s introduced budget provision, requiring with CIF to submit a “work plan” on how they will spend the said budget.

But aside from that, the public through budget advocacy groups and other watchdogs he said, should always “demand” for details about the dispensed government monies, in the spirit of “transparency and accountability.”

Congress leaders should also reconstitute the “Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on Public Expenditures” co-chaired by the House appropriations committee and Senate finance panel chairmen, Quitalig said.

“Pero hindi kasi nako-convene yun eh. Pag may nangyayari lang na big issues. At the top of my head for example, Yoland (typhoon) nag-convene sila.. but otherwise hindi sila regular na nagko-convene,” he said.

“Every year meron pong General Provision constituting that joint oversight committee. This means, every year sana, ay sana nagko-convene sila talaga,” he added.

The said joint oversight committee can also check on the CIF spendings if they want to, he said.

The lower House has also an existing public accounts committee, which task is to read all audit reports and summon the agencies concerned to answer the COA findings, Quitalig said.

“2022 and 2023”

For Quitalig, both the 2022 and 2023 budget’s strength is for “recovery.”

Still budget allocation remains lower than the appropriation.

But as for the 2020 and 2021 national budgets, the government has also failed to deliver much.

“If you look at the COVID-19 spending, although nakapagbigay sila, yes. Pero yung utilization mababa din. Ibig sabihin may mga sektor din talaga na na-marginalize,” Quitalig said.

'OPEN THE BICAM TO THE PUBLIC'

And with the bicameral conference committee for the 2023 budget starting the discussion Friday, there is really a need to open the meeting to the public, Quitalig said.

“We want to call for an open bicam (bicameral), from start to finish. Nangyayari kasi in recent years, first two days, um-open pa sila no?.. Pero after noon, when the deliberations, when the negotiations, reconciliations really happen, nagiging closed door eh. We want sana na yung buong bicameral conference committee meetings ay bukas,” he said.

“The power in the purse lies in the Congress. So, they have the power recast actually the budget. At pag hindi nakikita ng tao, hindi nalalaman ng tao kung ano yung kanilang nire-recast nila, binabago nila o nire-realign nila sa ibang agencies na budget… naaapektuhan yung accountability and transparency,”Quitalig pointed out.

“Public office is public trust. Kailangan maging bukas sila kung anuman ang gagawin nilang pagbabago sa budget,” he added.

ABS-CBN News tried to get a reaction of Senate finance committee chairman Sonny Angara on the Social Watch PH’s appeal.

The senator, however, has yet to reply.