SPEAKER Alan Peter Cayetano yesterday challenged Sen. Panfilo Lacson and other critics of the House of Representatives to identify the supposed “pork” in the House-approved version of the 2020 proposed national budget.
“I won’t respond to rumors,” Cayetano told a press conference when asked to comment on Lacson’s attacks that the House-approved GAB is riddled with pork. “My mother told me not to be a rumor-monger. When you engage in rumors, you become a rumor-monger yourself.”
Cayetano said that while he respects Lacson’s advocacy against the pork barrel system, “it seems that he can’t accept that this House is also against pork.”
Cayetano said he is willing to sit down not only with Lacson, who was his former colleague in the Senate, but also with other critics to discuss the issue and explain to them that no lump sum allocations or discretionary funds for lawmakers were inserted in the GAB.
“Tell me where the pork is and we’ll sit down with you,” he said. “If there is pork, identify it and we’ll be the one to remove it from the budget.”
Lacson has claimed that a congressman-source had told him that congressmen wanted P1.5 billion in allocations for each of the 22 deputy speakers and P700 million for the rest of its members.
The senator, however, later said the plan was scrapped even before he revealed it to media – a statement which Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro earlier said was utterly baseless, especially since Lacson has not even read and studied the GAB which will only be transmitted to the Senate today.
Cayetano made a power point presentation of the P9.5 billion institutional amendments that the House has made in the GAB, which he said was still almost identical to the National Expenditure Program (NEP) that the executive submitted to the House.
Of these institutional amendments, the biggest chunk of P3 billion went to the Department of Agriculture’s proposed budget for the purchase of palay (unhusked rice).
“There’s no pork in palay,” said Cayetano. “How can palay be pork?”
The Speaker said he can also understand how effortless it is for the people to believe the saying, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” because it’s easy to hurl allegations.
“I hear you, if there is smoke there is fire but we have a smoke machine nowadays so it’s possible that there’s no fire but there’s a smoke machine and some people work better in the smoke, in the dark. That’s what they want,” he said.
He said anyone can easily accuse someone of anything “but the problem is once you’ve done it, you can no longer take it back.”
Cayetano said no congressman is “stupid” enough to attempt to insert pork funds in the budget when the President has already threatened to veto such items.
In the same press conference, majority leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez said Lacson’s allegations, “at best, is premature.”
“We aren’t even done yet and we’re already being criticized. If there are suspicions, let’s discuss it in the bicam – if there’s a grey area or pork. It’s still premature but let’s also tell our dear senators that they also have former colleagues here (Cayetano and deputy speaker Loren Legarda of Antique), they have friends here and they won’t allow it.”
Deputy speaker Luis Villafuerte of Camarines Sur said there was no “ceasefire” between the two chambers because Lacson violated the agreement between Romualdez and Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri last week.
Villafuerte said it would be better if Lacson would be the one to initiate the call for a ceasefire since he was the one who did not honor it.
“There was no ceasefire because after Sen. Migs called for it (on Wednesday night), Congress as an institution was attacked again the following morning,” he told reporters. “It would be better if the call for a ceasefire will come from Sen. Ping.”
Lacson took exception to Villafuerte’s remark that he violated the supposed “ceasefire.”
“Cong. Villafuerte for once should stop prevaricating,” Lacson said in a text message. “How could I not honor something that I did not have knowledge about? He should not put words into my mouth then comment on it himself,” he added.
Villafuerte, who is a party mate of the Speaker in the Nacionalista Party (NP), assured Lacson that “we will fight alongside him against pork.”
He said the House remains confident that no pork or insertion will be discovered by senators once the GAB is sent to the Senate.
Villafuerte also defended the House’s move to create a small a panel headed by appropriations committee chair Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab which was tasked to accept or reject proposed individual amendments to the GAB even if it was already approved on final reading.
The lawmaker said he is wondering why incumbent senators who are former congressmen are not defending the House’s move which he said has been the practice at the since the 8th Congress, or some 30 years ago.
“It’s clear in the Constitution that both Houses can determine their own rules of procedure.
So, that small committee has been going on for 30 years,” he said.
SENATORS PUSH FOR BUDGET REVISIONS
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said the 2020 budget of the Philippine General Hospital must be increased, and not cut down by P456 million as proposed by the Department of Budget and Management.
In a statement yesterday, Recto lamented that the PGH’s budget, which is lodged under the University of the Philippines system, will be reduced to P2.77 billion, from the current budget of P3.23 billion.
“The PGH is often the first option and the last resort of the poor and the middle class to get the best medical treatment, so any cut on its budget hurts the deepest,” Recto said. “Not only must the cuts be restored, its (PGH) budget must be increased.”
Recto also said the budgets of the PGH’s regional counterparts, such as Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City and Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, should be increased too.
House appropriations committee chair Rep. Isidro Ungab has said on September 26 that some P500 million will be realigned to the PGH to effectively undo the budget cut. The funds will come from the amounts originally meant for the May 11, 2020 barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, which Congress is pushing to postpone by three years.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, for his part, raised concerns that a large chunk of the Department of National Defense’s proposed 2020 budget will be used to pay for pension than to beef up its active military personnel.
“With the ballooning cost of military pension, will it be a matter of time before the Department of National Defense becomes a full-fledged Department of Pensioners?” Drilon asked.
“This has been a problem ever since and we keep sweeping it under the rug,” Drilon told Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the hearing on the proposed P188.6 billion budget of his department for 2020.
In next year’s appropriation, the pension requirement of military veterans will reach P69.7 billion, which represents 60.57% of the P115.077 billion total budget for active military personnel.
On the average, Lorenzana said the pension budget grows by P1 billion yearly.
Drilon urged Lorenzana to come up with a solution on the growing problems in the military pension system, citing its serious implications on the national budget.
“It is time that we come up with a definite plan to solve it because if we don’t, we would become a department of pensioners,” he said.
The pension requirement of military personnel has ballooned over the years due to automatic indexation where pension entitlement is automatically adjusted based on prevailing scale of base pay of similarly ranked active personnel.
Also, unlike in the case of civilian personnel, it is the government, through the General Appropriations Act, that funds the pension requirement of uniformed personnel belonging to the AFP and the PNP.
The uniformed personnel also has an early retirement program at 56 years old, when the maximum retirement age for civilian personnel is at 65 years old. – With Vince Nonato