If a senator is free to do what he wishes with a P1.6-million bonus from the Senate’s savings, a clerk at the Department of Agriculture will be asked to refund any bonus from his agency’s savings.
In the National Housing Authority and other state corporations, employees are grumbling that they are being asked to return bonuses they had received in the past. They say those retiring are facing the prospects of deductions from their retirement pay if they do not reimburse the bonuses—in some cases up to P200,000 accumulated through the years.
That is the inequity created by the constitutional provision granting fiscal autonomy to certain bodies but not all of the bureaucracy, former National Treasurer Leonor Briones said Thursday.
“In government itself, you don’t have uniformity and equality,” she said by phone.
The Constitution authorizes the President, Senate President, House Speaker, Chief Justice or heads of constitutional commissions to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their office from savings.
Since this is clearly spelled out in the Constitution, the transfer of funds has been “legitimized” by many administrations, although the general principle is that savings would revert to general funds or the treasury, Briones explained.
Legit but not equitable
But what is legitimate may not necessarily be equitable from the point of view of public interest, she said.
While government agencies enjoying fiscal autonomy such as the Senate or House could give away fat bonuses to their employees, regular agencies like the departments are allowed by law to grant a maximum P10,000 bonus, Briones said.
“It’s not certainly equitable. If you’re a policeman, a clerk at DAR (Department of Agrarian Reform) or a bureau director at DA (Department of Agriculture) you’re entitled to P10,000,” she said. “From the point of view of legitimacy, it’s legitimate. But from the point of view of public interest, it may not necessarily be equitable.”
This practice has only bred envy among other government personnel, she added.
And unlike agencies enjoying fiscal autonomy, regular ones could not source bonuses from savings because they’re covered by the general rule that savings revert to the treasury, otherwise, the latter’s personnel would be asked to refund bonuses taken from savings, Briones said.
“So you have a case of a president of SUC (state university and college) who has to refund, and a senator who doesn’t have to refund,” she said.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has confirmed granting P1.6 million in additional maintenance, operations and other expenses (MOOE) to each of 18 senators last Christmas. Four other senators received P250,000 each.
Part of the funds came from the unspent funds allotted for the 24th seat vacated by President Aquino when he assumed power in June 2010 and was converted into MOOE.
Sought for comment, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said there was a need to clarify whether the MOOE was a bonus or part of the usual overhead expenses.
Otherwise, Enrile has full discretion “to realign funds from savings,” Abad said. In the end, the lawmakers are subject to a review of the Commission on Audit (COA), the secretary said.
“The matter of wisdom and prudence in the use of public funds should be addressed to the Senate in its exercise of its autonomy in the disbursement of funds,” he said. “Their autonomy is not absolute as COA in the end will have to audit their use of funds.”
‘It’s our money’
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte also admitted giving away P500,000 in MOOE to each of the 283 lawmakers during the holidays. Some of the recipients considered it a bonus.
“It’s our money. Is that practice acceptable? It’s generally known and accepted, but not necessarily considered as ethical,” Briones said.
“The issue of discretion on the part of officials can be used responsibly to perpetuate power, to take care of kingdoms or your part of bureaucracy, but it’s not necessarily fair to the rest of bureaucracy.”
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by phone Thursday that she had asked in a letter to COA Chairperson Grace Pulido-Tan for a “study, report and recommendation” that would once and for all define the constitutional words “savings” and “public purposes.”
Tan said Thursday in an interview that Enrile’s action was legal and authorized under the general appropriations act. “They were the ones who crafted this. We can’t play God. We can’t pretend to do better than them. They did not specify the parameters, so whatever inequity or abuse, she (Santiago) will have to take this up with the competent authority, which is the Senate President,” the COA chief said.
Later in the day, Tan issued a statement assuring the public that the COA was looking into the reported realignment of the Senate’s savings into the additional budget for the MOOE.
“Every action we take should be from the standpoint of the law. In due course, we will come up with a report,” she added.
“COA can only be as effective for as long as the people will continue to be vigilant and involved. At the end of the day, the sense of proportion on whether funds were used excessively is something only the constituents of the respective legislators can determine,” Tan said.
“He or she who is questioning and calling what (Enrile) did unconscionable and unconstitutional should be consistent and should not have accepted the P600,000 given last November,” Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Thursday, referring to the first tranche of MOOE. “One cannot preach righteousness after committing the very same unconscionable act yesterday.”
Sen. Gregorio Honasan said, “When you make a comment like that and refuse to be identified, why not join the Witness Protection Program.” With reports from Cathy C. Yamsuan and Cynthia D. Balana