More senators back move to defund ‘red-tagging’ task force – Drilon
MANILA, Philippines — Senators from both the majority and the minority blocs are supporting the realignment of the P19.1-billion funding proposed for a multiagency anti-insurgency task force to augment next year’s budget for housing and the government’s pandemic response, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said on Wednesday.
In a Viber message, Drilon said at least seven senators were likely to vote in favor of either a partial or a total realignment of the 2021 appropriation for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), which had generated a blowback for branding progressive lawmakers, activists and administration critics as communists and enemies of the state.
Drilon declined to identify the other senators but said he himself wanted the entire NTF-Elcac budget realigned.
P25B for 6.4M houses
“We need it for ‘Rolly’ and [coronavirus],” he said, referring to the typhoon (international name: Goni) which rampaged through the Bicol region and southern Luzon last weekend, causing massive destruction and killing at least 20 people.
Drilon said that for 2021, the government needed P25 billion to build 6.4 million houses in order to “partially” solve the country’s shelter problem, which had been worsened by the typhoon.
“Let us divert this huge lump-sum amount to disaster relief programs to help rebuild lives and communities in the typhoon-hit areas,” he said in a statement.
The move would also help erase suspicions that the money could be used “in aid of 2022 elections.”
“Instead of using P19 billion to fund soft projects that are prone to corruption, such as agricultural assistance, livelihood and technical vocational training, scholarship and assistance to indigent individuals or families, the funds should go directly to our kababayan devastated by the recent typhoons,” he said.
The bulk of the NTF-Elcac’s funding, or about P16 billion, had been earmarked for the development of about 820 barangays that had supposedly been cleared of communist rebel influence.
Drilon made the proposal amid growing calls for the Senate to make changes to the P4.5-trillion 2021 proposed budget approved by the House of Representatives as the government grappled with COVID-19 and the aftermath of Rolly and other recent destructive storms.
P8B for health sector
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said she wanted at least P8 billion appropriated for the task force to be reallocated for the health sector, including pandemic response. Another P2 billion could be realigned for typhoon relief and rehabilitation, she said.
Hontiveros said other senators may allocate the remaining P9 billion for other purposes.
She hoped that Sen. Sonny Angara, the finance committee chair, would accept the proposals when the Senate starts deliberations on the budget next week.
Angara said his committee was considering a supplementary budget to replenish calamity funds already used up by local government units (LGUs) for their coronavirus response, with not much left for relief and rehabilitation efforts in areas devastated by Rolly.
He told reporters his committee was looking for funds from budgetary items that could be realigned to disaster response.
Detained Sen. Leila de Lima, a native of Bicol, is pushing for bigger allocations for disaster response in the 2021 budget.
“The calamity fund or the disaster response fund, for both the national and local governments, and more so, the LGUs should get a larger and sufficient share,” De Lima, chair of the social justice panel, said in a statement from her cell in Camp Crame.
She said agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Department of Health should have more money.
“Not the President’s intelligence and confidential funds. Not the anti-insurgency fund,” De Lima said. “Enough of the shock-and-awe, propaganda mentality! Our leaders must get down to the real and compelling business of good governance.”
At the House, Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said calls for “defunding the Red-tagging and fake news spreading” task force “would be very welcome indeed.”
“If we are to take the P19.1 billion being asked for by the NTF-Elcac and use it to make relief packs, we can have at least 38.2 million packs for the more than 2 million people affected by Supertyphoon Rolly and even that of Typhoon ‘Quinta,’” he said in a statement.
“Taxpayer money should be used in something productive and for helping others, not in spreading lies and fake news,” Zarate said.
It would take “months and even years” for people, especially in Bicol, to recover and funds from the NTF-Elcac could be used to build houses and infrastructure, he noted.
COA audit request
Zarate had written Commission on Audit Chair Michael Aguinaldo requesting an audit of the multibillion-peso funds that had been allocated to the anti-insurgency body.
The task force “must be transparent and accountable to Congress and to the people for the public funds that they are given for their operations,” he said.
“It seems though that it is not the case. In this situation, the Congress has the duty to ensure that public funds are paid for lawful purposes and that the public is aware where their money is being spent by the government,” Zarate said.
President Duterte created the task force on Dec. 4, 2018, to “provide an efficient mechanism and structure for the implementation of the whole-of-nation approach to aid in the realization of the collective aspiration of the Filipino people to attain inclusive and sustainable peace.” —WITH A REPORT FROM NESTOR CORRALES
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