Miriam Santiago slams 'bloated' P3-trillion 2016 budget

MANILA, Philippines –  Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago on Thursday blasted Malacañang for proposing an inflated budget in 2016 despite notorious underspending throughout the Aquino administration, and for retaining lump-sum appropriations similar to the nullified Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

Miriam Santiago slams 'bloated' P3-trillion 2016 budget
Senator Miriam Santiago, who is running for the 2016 presidential election slams ambitious 2016 budget
In a speech read by Sen. JV Ejercito, Santiago urged her colleagues to be vigilant about the budget, noting that the Constitution vested on Congress the power of the purse, or the power to determine how people's taxes should be spent.

"Last year, I warned about excesses in pork barrel spending, and abuses in the utilization of lump-sum appropriations and unprogrammed expenditures. I repeat the same warning on the 2016 budget; only the portents are more grave and the threats to our financial stability more serious," the senator said.

The Senate is deliberating on the P3-trillion budget Malacañang proposed for 2016, 17.4 percent or P447 billion higher than the 2015 budget. Santiago called the proposal "ambitious" given the Aquino administration's "epic underspending record" since it came into power.

The senator explained that the government underspent by a total of P670 billion from 2011 to 2014. She added that in the first seven months of 2015, underspending was already "colossal" at P190 billion.

"It is not as if the Aquino administration is meeting its promised outputs and outcomes at less cost. It is simply failing in meeting its promises to the Filipino people," Santiago said, citing poor infrastructure, high unemployment rates, and chronic poverty.

Reasons for underspending, the senator said, include "sheer incompetence", the practice of "deliberatively bloating the budget request so it can play around with the artificial 'savings'", and "poor budget planning by including projects that are not implementation-ready."

Santiago warned that a bloated 2016 budget, like the 2015 budget, is prone to electoral politics. "Decisions about fund transfers in the guise of 'savings' are not necessarily for public purposes but for election-related objectives," she added.

The senator noted, however, that the most dangerous budget threat is "the continued presence of PDAF-like allocations and the provisions for lump sum appropriations," which she said was "in open defiance of the Constitution and three recent decisions of the Supreme Court."

"Every time a lump-sum appropriation exists it potentially means that the original budget approved by Congress, the general appropriations act, is illegally superseded and replaced by a mechanism created by one department or agency," Santiago said.

This practice creates a "budget within a budget" sans consent of Congress and extends to the heads of departments and agencies a power they do not have, Santiago said. "By usurping the congressional power of the purse, it violates the principle of separation of powers," she added.

Santiago urged the Senate to realign "PDAF-like budget items"--contestable budget items and lump sums--totaling P166.3 billion to alternative expenditures for social development as proposed by civil society and people's organizations, in order to protect the Constitution, respect the Supreme Court decisions, and, at the same time, respond to actual needs.

She also moved to disapprove some objectionable special provisions that authorize heads of agencies in the Executive Branch the authority to modify and realign the programs, activities, and projects as authorized by Congress, through the general appropriations act.

These provisions allegedly violate the Constitution, Article 6, Section 25 (5), which states that only the specific officers mentioned are authorized by law to "augment any item in the budget for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations".

The Senate should also totally reject the redefinition of savings which Santiago said "exacerbates the unconstitutional provisions of the 2015 budget and willfully ignores the three decisions of the Supreme Court on PDAF and DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program)."

Under the proposed budget, the government may declare as savings funds that have not been obligated due to:

final discontinuance of an ongoing program, activity, or project;

non-commencement of a program, activity, or project;

decreased cost resulting from improved efficiency; or

difference between the approved budget and contract award price.

Repeating her opposition to the definition of savings in the 2015 budget, Santiago said that after the budget has been enacted, heads of agencies can longer modify or realign specific budget items. She added that only when the project is completed can savings be determined.

"Augmentation from savings, appropriately defined, is allowed in the Constitution under very restrictive conditions. Realignment is not contemplated in the Constitution. It violates the Supreme Court decision on the DAP," the senator said.

Santiago also wants to limit, rather than expand, the scope of the power to augment, noting that new projects must instead be included in the budget for the next fiscal yearr, and that, if extremely necessary, the President has the option to submit a supplemental budget.

"During the last five budgets, Congress has dutifully approved the President's Budget. What the President wants, he gets.... We do not have to be subservient to the Executive Department. We have our own mandate and our own responsibility," Santiago said.

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