P10.3- billion ‘savings’ in 2020 used to fund infra, not COVID fight – Colmenares

By: Melvin Gascon - Philippine Daily Inquirer | September 13,2021 - 07:05 AM

Neri Colmenares—SENATE FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — Using Bayanihan 1 law as basis, Malacañang last year discontinued projects funded under the 2020 national budget, but it used the “savings” to finance infrastructure projects that had nothing to do with pandemic response.

Last year’s declaration of a national state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have allowed the Duterte administration to convert some P10.3 billion in contingent funds into presidential pork barrel, a paper trail of official documents showed.

At an online briefing on Sunday, former Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares questioned the realignment of contingent funds, which would have otherwise been used for “unforeseen” expenditures that could not be covered by the current spending law.

“This was the time when the country is in dire need for funds for cash aid, [personal protective equipment], testing and contact tracing, but here we see billions being used for [infrastructure] projects that are not urgent, such as swimming pools, convention center, and even a cruise ship port!” he said.

When the coronavirus began to ravage the country last year, Malacañang sought the passage of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which President Rodrigo Duterte signed on March 24, 2020, and became known as Republic Act No. 11469, or the Bayanihan 1 law.

It declared the existence of a national emergency due to COVID-19, outlined the government’s pandemic response, and gave the president the power to “reallocate, realign and reprogram” the national budget approved for 2020 in response to the pandemic.

The president was allowed to “discontinue” the implementation of projects funded under the 2020 budget and divert their approved budgets to augment funding for items “directly related to support operations and [COVID-19] measures.”

Among the “savings” from discontinued projects that Malacañang realigned, supposedly for COVID-19 response, was P10.3 billion labeled as contingent funds, in addition to the P13 billion originally allocated as such in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA).

Records showed, however, that the money was used not to boost the government’s COVID-19 response, but to finance infrastructure projects under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), many of which had nothing to do with directly addressing the effects of the pandemic.

Based on its disclosure in the 2022 National Expenditure Program, Malacañang, through the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), transferred in 2020 more than P10.3 billion of its contingent fund to the DPWH.

A trace of the documents showed that the DBM issued a special allotment release order (Saro) dated July 14, 2020, for P10.3 billion in favor of the DPWH to fund 344 public works projects across the country. According to the Saro, the release was approved by Duterte on June 25, 2020, or less than a month earlier.

Requests for comment from Malacañang, DBM and DPWH officials were unanswered.

Violation

Bayan Muna, through Colmenares, raised questions on the use of the 2020 contingent funds it suspected of having been converted into presidential pork barrel in violation of the law. In an earlier interview with the Inquirer, Colmenares said the group had stumbled upon the anomaly while scrutinizing the administration’s 2022 budget, which is undergoing committee deliberations in the House of Representatives.

He said that by allotting funds for 281 new projects using contingent funds, the DBM also transgressed Congress’ “power of the purse” and violated the principle that no new projects not specified in the GAA shall be funded, similar to what the Supreme Court had struck down in the case involving the Disbursement Acceleration Program of the Aquino administration.

However, documents showed that Malacañang may have used the President’s authority in Bayanihan 1 to realign P10.3 billion originally allotted for specific projects in the 2020 budget, and pool the funds for “contingencies.”

According to the 2020 budget, the contingent fund “shall cover the funding requirements of new or urgent projects and activities of national government agencies and GOCCs (government-owned and -controlled corporations) that need to be implemented or paid during the year.”

The contingent fund used to be just a small fraction of the budget, according to the Bayan Muna chair, but was noted to have been used lately as a “convenient storage of prospective presidential pork barrel.”

Beneficiaries

A cursory analysis of the allocation of the P10.3 billion showed that Luzon and Visayas got the bigger share, while only a small fraction went to Mindanao.

“Our hunch is that this P10.3 billion was used for election purposes, either to harass and reel in political enemies, or reward allies and fence-sitters and bring them to the fold of the administration, in time for the 2022 elections,” Colmenares told the Inquirer.

DBM documents showed that the P10.3 billion was the amount collected from the issuance of 135 “negative Saros,” which is a withdrawal of unobligated funds or savings due to the “suspension or stoppage of expenditures” on a particular project that was originally funded in an appropriations law.

Ranked by regions, Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) got the biggest share of the realigned 2020 contingent funds, with P1.83 billion for various infrastructure projects; it was closely followed by Bicol with P1.7 billion, according to Bayan Muna’s data analysis.

“From these figures, we can draw a hypothesis that the target of these projects were the areas where Duterte did not have solid backing in the 2016 elections, or the bailiwick of their presumed rivals in 2022,” Colmenares said.

Among the bigger projects funded by the P10.3-billion contingency fund were the construction of the P300-million Mangatarem-Sta. Cruz Road in Pangasinan and Zambales provinces, known as Daang Kalikasan.

The government also spent P190 million for the construction of a bypass road traversing San Fernando City and San Juan town in La Union, while P163 million went to the Bacolod City museum and auditorium, which, according to Bayan Muna was not found in the 2020 GAA.

In the National Capital Region office of the DPWH, the regional office got the biggest share at P540.9 million, P300 million of which was used for the renovation of the Land Bank of the Philippines building in Makati City, and P220.4 million for the construction of a seven-story Center for Academic Excellence building in Valenzuela City.

Not urgent

Second-biggest recipient in Metro Manila was the DPWH district office of Las Piñas City-Muntinlupa, where Public Works Secretary Mark Villar was once House representative, which got P250 million, including P150 million for the construction of its multipurpose building and another P100 million for the DPWH district office.

Other projects undertaken using the contingent funds included three in Aurora province: the P40-million flood control project in Barangay Dimanpudso in Maria Aurora town; the P20-million Cabituculun to Maligaya Road, also in Maria Aurora, and the P20-million Ipil to Reserva Road in Baler and Dipaculao towns.

Aside from the restriction that new DPWH projects should only be funded through specific items in the budget, the public works projects funded by the contingent fund were neither “urgent,” according to Colmenares.

He cited items like the P70-million sports facility in Casiguran town in Sorsogon province, which was built with a swimming pool, a warm-up pool, bleachers and restrooms.

Police and military installations also got their share of the funding from the contingent fund, which still suffered from the nature of “urgency,” Colmenares said.

He cited the construction of a P100-million multipurpose building for the Eastern Police District of the Philippine National Police; the P40-million, three-story instructor’s billeting area with cafeteria inside Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, which is being used as a training camp of the PNP’s Special Action Force, and another P60 million for the repair of its roads.

The completion of the clubhouse of the Philippine Army’s First Scout Ranger Regiment in San Miguel town in Bulacan province, as well as of a two-story transient quarters, also got P4 million and P3 million, respectively, from the contingent fund.

Another P30 million was also used for the “development of a bat cave” in Barangay Asbang in Matanao town, Davao Del Sur, he said.

“So now bats are more important than people? We are in the middle of a pandemic, so why can we not use the funds for vaccines, or health workers’ benefits instead?” he asked.

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TAGS: COVID-19, from 2020, P103B savings, used to fund infra

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