Is P16.44B fund some generals’ pork barrel?

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    THERE is an item in the proposed P4.506-trillion national budget for 2021 that stokes the curiosity of many members of the House of Representatives, and will perhaps be vetted, too, by the Senate’s resident budget scrutinizer, Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

    We refer to the P16.44-billion fund allocated for the Support to the Barangay Development Program of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). In defending this item during the budget hearing at the House of Representatives, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said this allocation is for the construction of farm-to-market roads, barangay health centers, water and sanitation systems, school buildings, agriculture and livelihood and technical vocational training.

    The DILG secretary’s explanations on why the need for P16.44 billion to be lodged on an anti-insurgency task force only contributed to the mystery. This is because Año’s answers were all denials: that the money is not a pork barrel; that the fund will not form part of the election war chest of the Duterte administration and the retired generals who are eyeing senatorial or congressional seats; that the fund cannot be used for electioneering because the beneficiaries are 822 far-flung barangays which are sparsely populated.

    ‘It might be itemized later, yes, and the COA may be allowed to audit the projects’ implementation, but for now, this fund has all the hallmarks of a pork barrel.’

    Kabataan party-list Rep. Sarah Jane Elago asked Año if the P16.44-billion allocation of the NTF-ELCAC will be used as an “election war chest.” Elago is conscious that next year is the start of preparations for the next presidential-national elections, and that politicians of the administration and the opposition will again raise funds for this political exercise.

    Secretary Eduardo Año assured the congresswoman that it is not an election-related fund, as the barangays where the communist insurgency thrives are the poorest and underserved by the government, and the task force is mandated to end the insurgency by giving the marginalized and forgotten barangays the infrastructure and other things that they need.

    It was not explained, however, during the hearing of the House committee on appropriations, chaired by ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Go Yap, why it is President Duterte’s baby, the NTF-ELCAC, which will implement the projects. Aren’t the Department of Public Works and Highways, TESDA, DSWD, provincial and municipal governments, and other agencies the ones directly mandated to implement them? It will bolster the principle of presumption of regularity if the National Task Force will only identify what projects to do and where to construct them, and the regular agencies of government to handle the implementation aspect.

    Also, by his own admission to the committee, Año revealed that this item does take the form of a “lump-sum pork barrel” because the amount of P16.44 billion had been submitted to the House of Representatives and the specific projects are still being determined and listed by the Task Force, in coordination with the Office of the President. It might be itemized later, yes, and the COA may be allowed to audit the projects’ implementation, but for now, this fund has all the hallmarks of a pork barrel.

    Let us see how this will pass the scrutiny of the Plenary, and of the Senate later.