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Avoiding underspending, assuring transparency

SENATE Minority Leader Ralph Recto has called for itemization of billions of pesos in lump-sum appropriations in the proposed National Budget for 2017. Itemization, he said, will avert the underspending that held back the operations of government in the last year of the previous Aquino administration.

As much as P1 trillion in various lump-sum appropriations in the 2016 budget were “not spent in time or in full,” he said. This is one-third of the year’s P3.002-billion budget. Many projects were thus not completed; many were not even begun.

In the proposed P3.35-trillion budget for 2017, the senator noted, there is P135 billion for capital outlay for the Department of Education. This is for the construction of new school buildings all over the country, but it is not stated where the new schools are to be built. Recto said that if this huge amount were itemized, the massive delay in school building that took place in the last three years is not likely to happen.

There are other lump sums in the proposed budget, including a P34.6-billion Local Government Support Fund, P5.4 billion for farm-to-market roads for the Department of Agriculture, P3.7 billion for forest rehabilitation by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, P1.7 billion for free Wi-Fi spots. If the locations of all these projects were listed, Senator Recto said, they are not likely to be forgotten and left unimplemented, if only because local officials and residents who stand to benefit from them will be pressing the national agencies for action.

But fast implementation of projects is just one of the reasons the lump sums in the budget should be itemized. The more important reasons are transparency and accountability. Lump-sum budgets could be diverted to areas favored by administration officials. The P34.6-billion fund for local government support, for example, could benefit certain local governments more than others. In an election year, this could be critical.

Because of the huge amount of the national budget – P3.35 trillion for 2017 – there may not be enough time for the Department of Budget and Management to flesh out the lump sums. Congress needs to approve the Appropriations Act before it adjourns for the holidays, so it can be implemented right at the start of the new year.

Senator Recto has, therefore, proposed that as soon as the budget bill is enacted, the projects planned under each lump sum be listed by the agencies concerned. But this is just a fall-back position. The ideal is still the elimination of all lump sums in the budget to give full meaning to the principle that Congress is in full control of all government money, as provided for in the Constitution. The government’s planners must see to it that this is done in succeeding budgets.