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P5-B govt funds eyed for Pirma signature campaign

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THE dubious outfit Pirma (People’s Initiative for Reform Modernization and Action) with the staffs of certain members of the House of Representatives was set to tap into at least P5 billion of government funds intended for poverty alleviation projects to bribe people into signing the proposal to change the Constitution, which would have given the Lower House of Congress uncontested authority to alter our basic law.

Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez with Pirma head Noel Oñate and its officers on the eve of the campaign’s launch.

This plot was intended to augment the initial plan to give away P200 per signatory which, the sources said, the Charter change plotters were having difficulty raising on a national level. This is according to sources privy to the scheme — whose allegations are bolstered by witnesses and communications among those involved.

Since the plot involves graft and malversation of funds, the Ombudsman has been asked to investigate the plot.

Hearings conducted by the Senate have revealed that House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez was involved in the campaign from the very start. Romualdez and property billionaire Noel Oñate, with other Pirma operatives, even had a meeting on January 8 in a Forbes Park townhouse owned by Romualdez apparently to check off the campaign. (See accompanying photo.)

Oñate admitted he had meetings with Romualdez, but claimed that it was only for Pirma to be able to coordinate with the congressmen. Sen. Francis Joseph “Chiz” Escudero said the admission of Oñate that congressmen helped Pirma’s signature campaign “bastardizes the constitutional provision on people’s initiative. It is a ‘politician’s initiative’ and is therefore illegal and unconstitutional.”

Poverty alleviation

The P5-billion funds were to come from several poverty-alleviation programs of three departments which had been given an allocation totaling P117 billion. Sources claimed that the Pirma conspirators apparently thought that an unnoticeable 5 percent of these funds could be used to bribe the purported signatories, who after all could be presented as qualifying for those poverty alleviation funds.

These programs are the following:

– The Department of Social Welfare and Development’s P60-billion “Ayuda sa Kapos sa Kita” program which allocates a one-time P5,000 financial assistance to “near poor” workers, and its P34 billion Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) fund that gives out from P2,000 to as much as P10,000 to “qualified” beneficiaries;

– The Labor department’s P13-billion Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers that gives out in a cash-for-work scheme a maximum of P10,000 for each beneficiary; and

– The Department of Health’s P10-billion Medical Assistance to Indigent Patients program that gives out as much as P10,000 to indigent patients for the purchase of needed medicines and other medical costs.

Project

These programs were to be those to which signatories in the “People’s Initiative Project” would submit their requests for funding, apparently with the assurance of certain congressmen they would get the money. An image of one such incriminating Viber message was presented in Congress, with many more in the possession of Sen. Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” Marcos, chairman of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation.

Incriminating viber message.

The Senate should ask the heads of the three departments — who are accountable for these funds — to report how such a scheme could have been executed and to submit a report on how much money had been released since January 8.

Several videos posted on YouTube even had an apparent Pirma staffer conducting a meeting and telling the participants they have to sign the petition to change the Charter so they could avail of the “AICS funds.”

The Pirma misadventure is dead in the water, although its head, Oñate, messaged me that he is on “a wait-and-see stance.” The Comelec (Commission on Elections) has stopped all official moves involving Pirma’s petition and has even asked the proponents to take back whatever documents they have submitted, including those containing the signatures. Oñate funded “the bulk,” he says, of the P55 million for the much-criticized commercials launching the signature campaign and aired in three television stations.

Deceiving

The Romualdez-Pirma conspirators have been deceiving the nation that what is being proposed is the lifting of all restrictions on foreign capital and other measures to make the economy more competitive. This is a total lie.

The actual document that they are asking people to sign asks solely in one sentence to give their assent to a change in Section 1, Article XVII of the present Constitution: “Any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by the Congress upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members, voting jointly, at the call of the Senate President or the Speaker of the House of Representatives.” (Itals mine).

The present Section 1 reads: “The Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its members.” Period.

The difference is not easy to spot, much less to understand. The masses, not even many readers of this column, have no idea what this amendment is, and this is not explained at all to people who have been asked to sign the petition.

That provision in the current Constitution means that the two chambers of Congress, the 315-member House of Representatives and the 24-man Senate vote separately on whether to propose an amendment to the Constitution. This principle is in fact the procedure for enacting a bill: the House votes on it, and the bill is sent to the Senate for the senators to vote on it. This two-chamber setup is at the heart of our republican system, intended to assure a check-and-balance mechanism: the people are represented at the local level by the House of Representatives even as they are represented on a national level by the Senate.

Amendment

Under the existing Constitution, for the Congress to propose an amendment, 236 (three-fourths) of the 315 representatives and 18 senators must approve the move. In Romualdez’s plot to change the Constitution to remain in power after his cousin Marcos’ term ends, the two chambers of Congress will vote jointly, that is the 315 representatives and the 24 senators vote as one body of 339 members. Three fourths of that — 254 — is enough for a proposal to be passed.

This means that the 24 senators under Romualdez plot have totally no say in amending the Constitution. Even if all 24 senators, plus the 28 opposition congressmen, vote against a proposal, Romualdez will still have 288 voting for it, much more than the three-fourths required of a proposal to amend the constitution.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., sources said, has been angered that his cousin’s project has backfired, weakening his political strength and driving a wedge between him and the former president Rodrigo Duterte, whose supporters were responsible for at least 50 percent of the votes he got to become president.

In the scheme of Philippine politics, this Pirma controversy would likely end in a few weeks, and I can’t imagine in what form a change-the-Charter move will take in the future.

That the plotters thought that they could without compunction tap into the government’s P117-billion poverty-alleviation fund explains their audacity in trying to pull it off.

The intriguing question we may have stumbled into: Is this P107-billion fund a new version of the old pork barrel system, which congressmen can use to bribe their constituents in order to build up their political base, or that of the ruling party?


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