SEN. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson’s ranting against the recently ratified P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 is not yet over.
Yesterday, Lacson scored the additional P28 billion budget that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) got in the final version of the money measure, which he said was approved in the bicameral conference committee level because of the “haggling” for pet projects of lawmakers.
Lacson said the extra funding was apparently meant to accommodate select lawmakers’ requests for inclusion of their “pet projects” in the list of government infrastructure projects.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, the senator said a scrutiny of the bicameral budget report would show that lawmakers initially added P83.87 billion in the DPWH proposed budget but “they (solons) could only extract P55.21 billion from within the department (so) they had to get the P28 billion differential from other agencies.”
“That’s the reason why there’s a net increase of P28-B in the budget of the DPWH. So, from the original P666.4 billion [in the National Expenditure Program], it is now P694-B,” Lacson said.
Lacson lamented that his colleagues in the Senate approved the bicameral report despite an increase in the DPWH budget.
“It’s personal interest first, and public service next, if at all. That’s the only explanation I can derive from what came out of the bicameral report,” Lacson said without elaborating.
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate committee on finance, has earlier said the Senate bicameral panel yielded to the questionable amendments to the proposed budget as he wanted the timely passage of the budget so that a re-enacted budget will be avoided.
Lacson said he understands Angara but this is a bad precedent.
“If that will always be the situation, we will be at the mercy of the congressmen who are fighting for their pet projects in their districts. So, it’s a Catch 22 situation,” he said.
To fund the P28-billion increase in DPWH funds, Lacson said lawmakers reduced the appropriations for the Department of Education by P11 billion, more than P35 billion was slashed off the budget of the Department of Transportation, and P5.2 billion was deducted from the Department of National Defense.
The Senate has earlier slashed the DOTr’s budget from P145.36 billion to P109.88 billion because of underspending. The senators said the reduced appropriations can be used to fund more important government programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you increase and decrease the budget of an agency there’s net change… So, not all the budget cuts went to DPWH. Other departments also gained increases in their budget allocations,” Lacson said.
“Initially, I proposed in my amendments that a budget cut of P60 billion should be imposed on the budget of the DPWH. But it seems only P31 billion was cut. But they increased the budget in other items. So, the net increase is at P28.3 billion,” he added.
He said the DPWH management was not even consulted about the “questionable” P28 billion budget increase since it was only Angara and Rep. Eric Yap, chairman of the House appropriations committee, who discussed and approved the increases and decreases in the proposed 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB).
Lacson said the approval of the additional P28 billion for the DPWH by only the chairmen of the House and Senate committees was a snapshot of why the DPWH and the DOTr have been underspending their annual appropriations.
He said the two agencies have not been exhausting their budgets because their officials were not aware and much less involved in the planning of many projects that were inserted in their budgets by lawmakers.
Lacson said he had always been puzzled by the national government keeps on increasing the expenditure program for certain departments each year despite their low utilization rates.
“For 2022, they are planning to propose a budget of P5-trillion. If most agencies are under-utilizing their budgets, why do we keep increasing the national budget? And we always operate on deficit, that’s why we always borrow,” he said.
“I think a sound economic practice would be to attain a balanced budget by not adding yearly to the national budget. Anyway, they cannot be implemented and if we total the underspent budget for the agencies it will run to hundreds of billions of pesos,” Lacson added.
Lacson said the P28 billion increase in the DPWH budget cannot be considered as “pork” since based on the Supreme Court ruling issued in 2013, this does not fall under the high court’s post-enactment definition.
“Somehow, legislators managed to beat around the bush by circumventing the ruling. So, even as early as in the preparation of the NEP, they managed to insert the items for their pet projects so it cannot be said they only identified the projects after the enactment of the GAA (General Appropriations Act),” he said.