SEN. Panfilo Lacson yesterday directed the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to submit to the Senate committee on finance a list of its infrastructure projects which requires funding this year to correct what he said was the “illegal and unconstitutional” inclusion of questionable allocations in its proposed 2021 budget.
Lacson said the new listing would help senators ascertain the legality of the P469 billion dubious allocation in the DPWH budget which was included in the proposed 2021 National Expenditure Program.
The senator had flagged the P469 billion, as he questioned why P396 billion in lump sum funds was lodged in the DPWH central office.
He likewise pointed out that the remaining P73.5 billion, which consists of 2,993 items, were already funded in the current 2020 budget. Lacson called it “repetitive appropriations” or “re-appropriations.”
Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado, who acknowledged the questionable appropriations and virtually admitted that the DBM erred when it prepared the DPWH budget, committed to submit to the committee a revised list of the agency’s 2021 “projects, activities, and programs (PAPs).”
Lacson said it was actually him who suggested to the DBM to submit a revised list of the DPWH’s PAPs by sending an “errata” to the Senate “to correct those illegal entries in the NEP because they are unacceptable.”
Lacson blamed the DPWH for the error, which he said failed to submit its proposed budget to the DBM on time.
“I find this (delay) hard to understand. If this government’s major policy direction in the 2021 national budget as proposed by Malacañang to Congress is the Build, Build, Build program under the Reset, Rebound, Recover strategy… How come, based on our verified information, DPWH failed to submit its proposed budget to the DBCC or DBM on time?” Lacson asked.
Lacson said sources told that due to lack of time, the DBM was compelled to submit the DPWH budget proposal even if it contained “questionable appropriations.”
“Unfortunately for them, my staff and I always do our homework each time in scrutinizing the annual budget. They should know me better now,” he said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque denied there were lump sum appropriations and re-appropriations in the proposed 2021 national budget.
Roque said the Executive branch ensured that each funding allocation in the proposed NEP corresponds to a specific line item, program or project.
“Malacañang stands by the budget it submitted. To remove the pork barrel, we need to ensure that all appropriation have specific line item in the budget. So we believe, there is no lump sum appropriation there, each has specific projects specified,”he said.
Lacson, reacting to Roque’s statement, said: “A spokesperson will always defend his principal, right or wrong. That’s his job. At any rate, with DBM Sec. Avisado’s virtual admission of the questionable entries in the 2021 NEP and his commitment to ask DPWH to submit a revised list of PAP’s, easily makes Sec. Roque’s statement stand on hollow grounds and therefore should not be taken seriously.”
Aside from the p469 DPWH re-appropriations, Lacson also questioned why the government failed to use P30 billion from the P389 billion allotted in the fight against COVID-19 under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act or Bayanihan I.
Avisado said the P30 billion was distributed to various agencies also in connection with the fight against the disease, among them the Department of National Defense which got P500 million, the DPWH received P2.7 billion, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development got P12 billion.
Also during yesterday’s DBCC briefing, Sen. Grace Poe questioned the bigger budget allocation for the agency’s flood control projects for next year as compared to the proposed 2021 budget of the entire Department of Health, the lead agency in the COVID-19 pandemic fight.
Citing figures listed in the NEP, Poe noted that the DPWH’s flood control projects was allotted P150 billion, while the entire DOH’s proposed budget was only P131.22 billion.
The DPWH’s proposed budget for 2021 was pegged at P667.3 billion, which was second highest allocation after the education sector which was allotted P754.4 billion. The DOH placed fifth.
Poe said while it is true that environmental factors “should not be neglected,” she said there are questionable flood control projects which are hard to keep track “if they were really done.”
She said government should, at least for now, train its sights on the fight against COVID-19.
“Since COVID-19 is still present, one will assume that improving our health facilities would be the priority. My question is, why is the funding for flood control projects of the DPWH bigger than the budget of the whole of DOH?” Poe asked during the budget briefing.
Avisado could not give a straightforward explanation.
“We were guided by the priorities of the government and for sure, even as we go through the process of really allocating all of these funds, we are trying to, we did our best but even so, we will always fall short because of the ambivalence of the environment. But certainly, our desire, your honor, is really to strike a balance between health and economy and we’re looking at precisely partnering with Congress and looking into this,” Avisado said.
Poe said the Senate “will look at this in depth when we have the individual hearings with the department and ask the DPWH to clarify.”
Poe said she would also look into the reduced budget for the Department of Education’s basic education continuity program, which was given only P16 billion from its original request of P60 billion.
She also raised the issue of technical smuggling at the Bureau of Customs and asked about the measures the agency is taking to curb the illegal activities that deprive government of much-needed revenues.
The Development Budget Coordination Committee, composed of government economic managers, presented before the Senate finance committee the proposed P4.506 trillion spending program for 2021 detailing a comprehensive plan on how to meet the challenges of economic recovery and social service as the country continues to battle COVID-19.
The latest National Expenditure Program is 9.9 percent higher than the 2020 budget, and 21.8 percent of the country’s Philippine gross domestic product (GDP). – With Jocelyn Montemayor