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Specific budget items, not lump sums

THE Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) in 2013, followed by the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) of Malacañang and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) in 2015. The administration had used the first to influence legislators and the second to fund programs even without congressional approval.

After the twin rulings, it looked like Malacañang and the DBM sought to carry on the same programs under other guises and other names. Instead of funds going directly to legislators for local projects under PDAF, they went through a system of Bottom-Up Budgeting where local officials were asked to suggest projects for implementation by an established agency like the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

Sen. Panfilo Lacson found huge lump-sum appropriations in the proposed 2015 national budget. He said a total of P424 billion without any specific projects were assigned to various departments, many in the DPWH. The huge sums, he said, could be released later by the DBM which could assign them to a project of a congressman or senator, say through the DPWH.

There was also a program of the Department of Finance called Unified Accounts Codified Structure (UACS) totaling P11 billion allocated for blank items identified only by code numbers.

All the suspicious budget items appeared as lump sums, Lacson noted. Could they be reincarnations of the outlawed pork barrel funds, he wondered. Sen. Francis Escudero, then chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, vowed that Congress would require that no funds be released by the DBM unless an itemized listing of expenses is submitted by the agency concerned. But the ideal system is still an itemized budget.

The new administration of President Duterte has now submitted to Congress its proposed budget for 2017. And, quite unexpectedly, at the budget hearings of the House Committee on Appropriations, it was found to have huge lump sums.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno admitted last Monday that there are indeed lump sums in the budget proposal filed by the DBM with Congress, but he assured that they will be used for salary increases for military and police personnel and for the construction of 47,000 new school buildings. Kabataan partylist Rep. Sarah Elago asked about P1.4 trillion – about a third of the entire budget – lodged under Special Purpose Funds which, she said, were lump sums and discretionary in nature.

The hearings will continue in the House after which the budget proposal will move on to the Senate. By the time the new Congress is through with its hearings, it is our hope that all those lump sums will have corresponding items attached to them. We can understand that some funds will have to be set aside for unexpected expenses, such as for extensive damage by a typhoon or some other disaster. These may remain as lump sums but the rest, such as funds for salary increases and school buildings, must be identified as such so that there will be no suspicions later of undue fund transfers for political gain.

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