(UPDATE) Why allocate P40 billion in people's money to a government task force fighting communist rebels instead of giving ayuda (cash aid) to Filipinos severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
This is the question posed by Sen. Franklin Drilon after receiving reports that the Duterte administration wants to increase the budget of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict to P40 billion next year.
Speaking to reporters, Drilon said the plan to double the NTF-ELCAC's budget for the barangay development program is directly tied to the 2022 national elections.
"2022 is an election year. Therefore, these amounts of money available is a campaign kitty, whether you like it or not," he said.
The interior department last month said it was eyeing around P40 billion for the NTF-ELCAC's budget next year.
The funding will include P20 million each for about 2,000 barangays that were previously “influenced” by rebels because of underdevelopment or government neglect, said Interior Secretary Eduardo Año.
These barangays will get farm-to-market roads, schools, houses, health centers, electrification, and livelihood programs from the funding, he told a forum.
Drilon, however, said a large portion of the barangay development program funds is being used for soft programs such as training and livelihood, which can be stolen by manipulating the number of beneficiaries.
He compared the program to the P728 million fertilizer fund scam in 2004, which saw funds supposedly being used to buy fertilizer for congressional districts that did not even have farmlands.
He also questioned the release of the barangay development program's P16.24 billion funding in a period of 3 months "when the government should have realized that the pandemic is a continuing problem."
"What is clear is that the budget indicates misplaced priorities that we have in this administration. With the planned lockdown again, the estimated unemployment will again rise. As of May, there are already nearly 4 million unemployed. That number could increase in the next two weeks when we enforce the lockdown. That is why to me, the priority should be the ayuda rather than anti-insurgency," Drilon said.
Asked if senators would insist in giving the task force a "zero" budget next year, Drilon answered in the affirmative.
He added that his colleagues in the Senate are "united" on the matter.
“Yes, because the projects that are supposed to be done by NTF-ELCAC, they are all over the bureaucracy," according to the lawmaker.
“We are united. I’ll try to talk to my colleagues why we should not allow this budget for next year, because of being an election year, I think the opportunity to use this for opportunity for election purposes is very clear and patent."
For his part, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said legal safeguards will prevent the NTF-ELCAC funds from being used to advance politicians' interests in the 2022 elections.
"Meron naman po tayong mga safeguards sa ating (we have safeguards in our) Omnibus Election Code," said Roque, in response to Drilon's statement.
Infrastructure projects are banned during campaign period, he noted in a press briefing.
The official said he has yet to see the proposed 2022 national budget, as it was still being printed.
- with a report from Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News