Budget déjà vu
Philippine Daily Inquirer
December 6, 2018 at 5:14 am

A national budget about to be reenacted. Legislators once again swimming in pork. Up ahead, elections. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: The country is back, indeed, in the era of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The specter of a reenacted 2018 budget for next year now looms large with only a few session days left before Congress goes on recess for the holidays.

But that Congress appears to be in this futile race against time to pass the proposed 2019 appropriations by Dec. 15 is a crisis of its own making.

The House of Representatives took its own sweet time going through the budget, which had been submitted for review as early as July this year, on the same day as President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address.

But it approved the proposed P3.757-trillion bill only on Nov. 20, leaving the Senate little time to do its own review.

The cause of the delay?

The insertion of numerous pet projects by lawmakers, with Speaker Arroyo and her allies authorizing the allocation of P60 million in government projects to each congressman, and P200 million to senators. Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr., who was budget secretary during Arroyo’s time as president and the overseer of that administration’s routine reenacted budgets (“Arroyonomics,” Sen. Franklin Drilon called it), vehemently denied that what the legislators are getting under the new budget is pork barrel.

They’re “last-minute funding requests,” Andaya rationalized, supposedly made by several line agencies and the President himself.

And these “amendments” are not “insertions.” Projects are itemized, and thus do not violate the Supreme Court’s ruling that declared the pork barrel system unconstitutional.

Andaya is fooling no one with his dandy wordplay, least of all the public. Legislators “requesting” funding for projects in their localities and thus dispensing political patronage is essentially the discredited Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) passed off another way.

And with elections coming up next year, lawmakers apparently made a mad scramble to identify projects in their districts for funding. Sen. Panfilo Lacson claims at least two congressmen have been allocated as much as P1.5 billion each under the proposed budget.

And so the notorious system that birthed the gargantuan PDAF scam of Janet Lim Napoles and her many coconspirators in government is back, and once again it’s Arroyo dispensing the cash, the legislators getting nearly the same amounts they were enjoying before the revels were cut short by public outrage and the high court’s ruling in 2013.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, who railed against the pork barrel system during the Aquino presidency, is silent about its return this time. What he’s exercised about are the “costly consequences” of a reenacted budget on the economy.

“Next year, infrastructure and other capital outlays are huge, amounting to almost P1 trillion. But with a reenacted budget, there is real risk that a big chunk of the infrastructure budget will be stalled, exacerbated by the election ban on new construction,” he said.

More: The salary adjustments for civilian and military personnel for 2019 will also have to wait, along with massive capital spending designed to accelerate economic growth and reduce poverty.

He didn’t say, but a reenacted budget is also more prone to corruption, as the Chief Executive gets the leeway to redirect the money elsewhere.

What looks more likely now, according to the new calendar transmitted to the budget department by the Senate, is that Jan. 25 next year would be the earliest possible date for Congress ratification of the 2019 General Appropriations Act, and Feb. 7 as the latest possible date.

This means a reenacted budget may have to be implemented for the first three months of next year. No new projects can start until the new budget is approved, and that delay will also result in a five-month implementation gap for new projects, given the election ban from March to May.

“The President has done his job,” reminded Diokno. “The ball is in Congress’ court. It is the collective responsibility of legislators to approve the general appropriations bill (GAB) before they go on a holiday break. Passing the GAB is the legislators’ first and foremost responsibility to the nation and to the Filipino people. Duty first before pleasure.”

By that measure, the 2019 budget shouldn’t only be passed on time, it should also be stripped of the thing  about to get reenacted through it: pork, by some other fancy name.

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