“Rouges’ ” Damascus Moment

by Juan L. Mercado

President Benigno Aquino signed into law his first national budget . He stitched in “mandatory postings” provisions. Are we on the cusp of a good-governance initiative? Or a big bust?

Like it or not, legislators must upload on Department of Budget and Management’s website, “details about their pork barrel spending,”, chairman of House appropriations committee Rep Joseph Abaya told Inquirer. The P1.645-trillion budget requires publishing data on fund releases, bid provisions and awards, etc. Budget Secretary Florencio Abad added.

Will fugitive Senator Panfilo Lacson be allocated P200 million in pork, despite a pending arrest warrant?. Will Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo heed “mandatory provisions” on her beneficiaries?

As President, she vetoed last March, a similar transparency clause stitched into her P1.41-trillion budget. “Vetoes against measures to curb theft by greater transparency stud the Arroyo record,” noted Viewpoint ( PDI/ Sept 28, 2010 ) Congress stapled ‘A Right to Information’ clause into the 2007 budget. The lady vetoed that one. Last year’s rewrite slammed into a repeat veto”.

Arroyo allies, like Speaker Prospero Nograles and Rep. Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin) derailed the Freedom of Information bill. If approved, that’d have allowed citizens access to data from the P600-million Macapagal Boulevard overprice to the $328-million ZTE broadband deal.

Pork is deodorized by an official template: “Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) In the 2011 budget, 24 senators and 283 congressmen may slurp from the pork trough. There are notable exceptions. Senator Joker Arroyo never dipped into his pork allotments. Deputy Speaker Erin Tanada aligned his pork barrel to support Millennium Development Goals, notably on curbing maternal and infant death rates.

But many treat pork slabs almost like personal checks. Too much “goes for roads that led to nowhere,” former National Treasurer Leonor Briones frets, “or waiting sheds that wait for no one.”

Taxpayers never get accounting on how pork is divvied-up. Major scandals provide the exceptional window. The Maguindanao murders led to audits that ripped down curtains on how the Ampatuans fritted away pork and heftier Internal Revenue Allotments.

“The P-Noy administration … inserted transparency and accountability measures into execution of the budget,” concluded former NEDA chair Solita Monsod. She sifted, with usual thoroughness, through the draft budget late last year. “(These can] ensure that expenditures don’t get diverted or wasted.”

The Department of Interior and Local Government spearheaded this “open-books” drive DILG already pastes its budget, contracts and expenses on the Net. Go transparent, DILG Local Secretary Jesse Robredo directed attached agencies, from Philippine National Police to Local Government Academy.

As six-term mayor of Naga, Roberdo made transparent that city’s financial data. He met met stiff opposition — but won accolades from Magsaysay Award Foundation to World Bank. P-Noy’s first budget now casts a wider net.

About 20 centavos of every taxpayers’ peso is cornered by crooks. So, we’re pleasantly surprised this PNoy reform proposal got this far. Usually, such changes would be mugged early on.

Arroyo’s “thumbs-down” for transparency measures enabled Malacanang to mask, for some time, that the lady burned P940 million for globe-trotting, just in her last year as president. That’s 400 percent more than the P244.6 million authorized by the budget.

The 2011 budget rules “are a little more stringent now”, a key committee chairman explained. “We’re surprised by the marked difference. And nobody is complaining.”

So far, that is. “Rain wets a leopard’s skin,” the Ghanian proverb says. “But it does not wash out the spots.”

Led by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, the new Congress. approved mandatory posting. That is overdue — and welcome. It does not mean both now preside over an assembly of once certified rouges who’ve had a mass “Damascus moment.”

“Mandatory postings” provisions will buttress the Government Procurement Reform Act. That mandates posting of annual procurement plans, bid invitations and winners. Outlets include the Internet, newspapers and bulletin boards.

Bad habits die hard, however. Officials in many provinces and cities, like Congress, are spoiled by sustained spending with sparse accounting. All sorts of dodges will be used.

Cebu City window-dressed it’s massive foreign debt by using outdated exchange rates. COA rapped the knuckles of then mayor, now Congressman Tomas Osmeña.. On it’s official website, Congress posts it’s budget — of 2008.

People, however, clamor for transparency and a Freedom of Information Law. These are powerful inducements, Robredo says. True. Even if not deliberately smudged, mandatory postings are not self-implementing. They provide data at most.

Effective citizen action must channel that clamor. Social Watch Philippines is a good example of a citizen watchdog over the taxpayer’s .peso Universities can focus their research on the budge impact on their environs. Examples can be multiplied.

Mandatory postings can help citizens ask those who spend their money the tough questions “What (funds) have you got? Where did you get it from?” as British Labor Party’s Labor’s Viscount Stangate (Tony Benn) would snap “In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable?. And how do we get rid of you?”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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