Largest pork barrel ever: P21B in 2015

I find two things in our country getting more and more amazing: (1) the skill of this Administration in hiding its nefarious schemes; and (2) the gullibility of the media, and therefore the public, in believing such government lies.

Consider the pork-barrel issue that has engulfed our nation starting mid-2013. It resulted in a Supreme Court decision last November declaring it illegal. Based on allegations that they have pocketed pork-barrel funds, three senators have been arrested and jailed.

Last week, the Congress passed its most important legislation for the year, the 2015 budget of P2.6-trillion. It won an overwhelming 197 votes, against only 27 against it—naturally, as this column explains below.

There was hardly a protest against it – despite its huge pork-barrel allocation. President Benigno Aquino 3rd and his officials have been saying in the Goebbels-style of big-lie-repeated-again-and-again: There is no more pork barrel in the budget.

Next to his ‘we-are-fighting-graft’ canard, that is Mr. Aquino’s biggest deception right now.

In fact, the pork barrel in the 2015 budget is the biggest we’ve seen so far, at P21 billion. It was P16 billion for each of 2011 and 2012, and P20 billion in 2014. (The pork-barrel releases were drastically reduced to P10 billion in 2013 because of the Supreme Court’s order in September that year to stop such releases pending the case on its constitutionality.)

final-graf-for-pork-barrel-300x267
Different names for the same racket.

 

Imagine that: The high court, and the entire nation I would think, scolded Aquino and ordered him to stop having pork barrel in the budget. Yet, he has continued to do so, and even made it bigger.

Pork-barrel releases in the past four administrations had never gone beyond P10 billion per year. The huge amount of taxpayer’s money Aquino has been giving local congressmen explains why the Congress has been the most servile ever to a president.

The pork barrel in the 2015 budget certainly fits one of the Supreme Court’s definitions of it: “An appropriation of government spending meant for localized projects and secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district.” Its worst aspect has been the siphoning of its proceeds into congressmen’s pockets, through fictitious projects and NGOs. There are no systems in place preventing such type of graft for the 2015 pork barrel.

Through the pork-barrel fund in the 2015 budget, the country’s 1,629 municipalities and cities are allocated P12 to P15 million each. It’s a powerful carrot-and-stick scheme for ensuring district congressmen’s support for the Administration, since actual releases can be delayed for any reason Aquino may concoct if a particular House Representative doesn’t toe his line. A new provision in the 2015 even specifies that if the allocation isn’t used in the year, it will be reverted to the national treasury, and can be used only if authorized by another legislation.

Now you understand why 197 congressmen voted for the 2015 budget, don’t you?

Anybody who has lived in a municipality and watched the inner workings of a local government would know that there are endless ways for a local government chief executive to get a kickback from the projects in their jurisdiction funded by such pork barrel, which is why the fund is so important to local politicians’ power.

It’s a boon to sparsely populated provinces that have managed to be divided into several municipalities.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad even increased the pork barrel of his home province Batanes – which his wife represents in the House – to P75 million from the P58 million annual average the province received from 2011-2013. The P75 million was distributed at P12.5 million to each of Batanes’ six towns.

With the hundreds of millions of pesos of government funds Abad has channeled to his Lilliputian province, it is even running out of projects to be funded by the 2015 pork barrel, so the use of a P5.5 million fund for the town of Mahatao could only be listed as for a “project to be determined.”

Would you believe that this quiet, small island would get a pork-barrel fund amounting to P2.5 million for the establishment of a “bahay pag-asa for CICL?” What’s CICL? Children-in-conflict-with-the-law. For a tiny place with only 10,000 residents to have a lot of juvenile delinquents needing a haven, Batanes must be the country’s Babylon.

To be sure, Aquino has camouflaged his 2015 pork barrel, and made some revisions to it, so it would not seem to be an act of defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the pork-barrel fund is unconstitutional.

First, the 2015 pork barrel is now called the “Grassroots Participatory Budgeting Project List” (GPB). There is a section in each of the appropriations for 14 departments and entities specifying that a certain amount of their budget will be allocated to the GPB projects, listed in an annex. These departments are those that have always been conduits for pork barrel since 1986, the biggest of which are the departments of agriculture (P4 billion), interior and local government (P5.8 billion), social welfare and development (P2.7 billion), and the local government support fund (P2.8 billion).

Second, in order to go around the Supreme Court ruling that budget allocations cannot be “care of” the congressman who would direct its actual use, Aquino’s new pork merely distributed the amounts to each district under a congressman. In practice though, it is the congressman who will determine, based on his relationship with Malacanang, whether the funds are actually released or not.

And to go around the Court’s ruling that legislators can have no role in the implementation of the budget, Aquino’s new pork barrel specifies its particular use before the Appropriations Bill is enacted into law.

This is in practice just a bit more staff work for a congressman’s office, as he can very easily list a year in advance the projects he wants implemented in the district. For the most unscrupulous, these are the kinds of projects that can be undertaken by contractors with whom he is associated closely enough to turn over to him some kickbacks.

Thus, the list of more than 1,590 Priority Poverty Reduction Projects funded under the GPB is the same old list of projects funded by pork-barrel funds in the past several years such as “various road” projects, “post harvest facility,” and the ubiquitous “livelihood projects.” If these sound familiar, it is because these are the kinds of projects the infamous Janet Napoles allegedly used to siphon funds off into legislators’ projects.

It’s been the trademark of this Administration to cloak its immoral and unethical projects with noble intentions. Thus, the funds used to bribe senators to take out Chief Justice Renato Corona were raised through a “Disbursement Acceleration Program.”

The 2015 pork barrel is portrayed as the result of empowering the masses to determine the uses of the government budget, through the so-called Grassroots Participatory Budgeting. Under this scheme, civil society organizations in municipalities were supposed to determine the local projects financed by the P21-billion fund, not government officials.

C’mon guys, do you really want us to believe that municipalities from Batanes to Basilan now have such strong civil-society organizations so that it is no longer the local political bosses, no longer the congressmen, who determine the use of government funds at the local level? That’s just like telling us that Aquino is psychologically healthy. I can believe that’s what happening in Maguindanao towns if you classify the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a civil society organization.

Such a situation is only in the mind of Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, who spent most of her working life coordinating – never really organizing or leading – NGOs. In fact, it is Soliman who spun lies for the country to get a dubious award for its “Grassroots Budgeting” last September, which the Administration has been using to claim that there is no more pork-barrel next year.

I’ll discuss that on Wednesday.