WHILE lawmakers are questioning the Office of the President’s billions of intelligence and confidential funds for 2021, they want Congress to augment the Office of the Vice President’s minuscule budget to help it in its coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) response activities.
The Office of the President (OP) has a total of P4.5 billion intel and confidential funds under its proposed P8.23 billion budget for 2021 but the Office of the Vice President (OVP) only has an proposed allocation of P679 million which, according to Camarines Sur Rep. Gabriel Bordado, is the lowest budgetary allocation in the entire Philippine bureaucracy.
During the budget briefing on the OP’s 2021 budget, militant lawmakers questioned the propriety of its huge confidential and intelligence funds which they said could be used instead to fund the government’s COVID-19 response.
Of the P8.23 billion proposal, P2.25 billion will be allocated for confidential funds while another P2.25 billion will go to intelligence funds for a total of P4.5 billion, an amount which is more than half of the OP’s 2021 budget.
“Bakit po sa gitna ng pandemya, tama po ba na humingi pa ang Office of the President ng P12.98 million kada araw para sa black budget? (Is it appropriate for the Office of the President to ask for a daily P12.98 million black budget?)” Kabataan party-list Rep. Sara Elago asked.
Elago said a huge part of the confidential and intelligence funds could be used to buy more personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits, improve the capacity of the public healthcare system, assist those who have lost their jobs, and increase the social amelioration to the poor.
Deputy Executive Secretary for Internal Audit Alberto Bernardo said the funds are needed since terrorist groups are using the pandemic to their advantage, citing the recent bombing in Jolo, Sulu that left least 14 and injured 75 others.
“Mas mahalaga nga sa ganitong krisis (ang pondo) sapagkat napatunayan natin kahit na mayroong pandemya ng COVID, mayroon pa rin tayong mga bombing na nangyari dito sa Sulu (We actually need it more in this crisis because we’ve proven that even in the face of the COVID pandemic, there are still bombings in Sulu),” he told the panel chaired by ACTS-CIS Rep. Eric Yap.
Bernardo said that since financial transactions mostly happen electronically because of the pandemic, there is a need to beef up cybersecurity.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate asked the Executive if the OP’s intelligence gathering is not a duplication of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) work but acting Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Michael Ong disagreed, saying the OP’s intelligence efforts of the OP complement the NICA’s surveillance programs.
Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, who used to chair the panel, later moved to approve the OP’s budget at the committee level but since the budget bill has yet to be read on the floor for committee referral, he later amended the motion and just moved to “terminate the present briefing and consider it approved when we convert it in a committee hearing.
“In order to expedite the proceedings, we usually allow the committee on appropriations to conduct budget briefings and covert later the budget briefings into a formal committee hearing. That’s why during our budget briefings, the rules are more liberal,” he said as the panel approved the motion.
After the discussions on the OP’s budget were terminated, the panel proceeded to hear the budget presentation of the OVP that was done by Vice President Leni Robredo herself.
She said the OVP had asked for a P720 million budget like last year but the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) only approved P679 million.
While an additional budget will be a great help, Robredo said operating on a low budget has never been a hindrance because the OVP knows how to “make do with what we have.
“It has never paralyzed us from doing the things that we have been doing. As I have said, whatever is given to us, we will make do with that. Of course, we will be able to help more people if we are given funds, but whatever is given to us, we work within that budget,” she said.
Bordado, a member of the Liberal Party, called for more budget for the OVP which he said has been engaging in “frontline activities against COVID-19.”
“It has also launched livelihood, education, people empowerment and other projects throughout the country, but still, its budget is still the smallest in the entire bureaucracy,” he said.
Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez is urging Congress to restore the OVP’s budget to P720 million and augment it by 10 percent of its original proposal or by P72 million, for a total of P113 million.
“Giving this P113M will go a long way in providing funds to OVP to implement its regular programs and its response to Covid-19 pandemic. Also, the OVP budget is the smallest allocation in the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 budget,” he said.
Rodriguez congratulated Robredo for the OVP’s “successful programs for housing for internally displaced persons and for giving seed capital to people’s organization’s livelihood projects.”
Baguio City Rep. Mark Go proposed that the OVP’s budget be doubled, lamenting the annual budget cuts it receives from the DBM.