P20-B cut in pension funds for retired soldiers, cops lead to House finger-pointing
MANILA, Philippines—Congressmen ended up pointing fingers at each other on Monday (March 1) over a P20-billion cut in pension funds for retired soldiers and policemen.
The debate used up more than three hours of the House of Representqtives’ plenary session and seemed to revive the rivalry between the camps of Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and his predecessor, Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano.
Names of past and current House officials allied with either Velasco or Cayetano were dragged into the fray.
Rep. Michael Defensor, of the party-list group Anakalusugan, raised the amount of pension and gratuity fund for military and police pensioners which Defensor said had been “significantly reduced” by President Rodrigo Duterte from P172.9 billion previously to P152.9 billion in the 2021 national budget that the President signed.
In a privilege speech, Defensor said the fund cut “largely affected the payment of 2018 pension differentials.”
Defensor said he was withdrawing his yes vote to the 2021 General Appropriations Act out of “shame” and as a “symbolic” gesture against a “manipulated budget.”
“I now ask the leadership of the House, House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, why did this happen?” Defensor said.
“How can we allow the pension and gratuity fund of our policemen, soldiers, Coast Guard, firefighters and jail guards be slashed?” he said.
Responding to Defensor’s, House appropriations committee chair Rep. Eric Yap confirmed that the pension fund was reduced by P20 billion in the 2021 national budget.
He said other items in the 2021 spending measure were also cut to use funds for COVID-19 response like procurement of vaccines and supplies.
Yap admitted that he decided to cut the pension fund without Velasco’s knowledge to meet the deadline of passing the budget bill before Congress suspended session late in 2020.
He added that in the 2020 national budget, the pension and gratuity fund was also slashed by P70 billion when he was not yet the House appropriations panel chair.
The powerful appropriations committee was then led by now House Deputy Speaker Isidro Ungab.
“The P70 billion was removed when there was no COVID-19. I don’t know where the P70 billion from the pension fund went,” Yap said.
He also blamed this larger budget cut for the inadequate pension budget for retired soldiers and policemen but said it happened before his watch as House appropriations panel chair.
Yap, however, said he was preparing a P50-billion supplemental budget proposal that would include funding for pension and gratuity for soldiers and policemen. Defensor said he, too, would file a supplemental budget proposal for the pension fund.
Ungab, responding to Defensor and Yap through Zoom, denied that he was responsible for the P70 billion budget cut for the pension fund.
He named Cayetano and Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte, then deputy speaker for finance, as the ones who “finalized” the bicameral committee report for the 2020 budget bill.
“The bicameral conference committee report was finalized at the office of Cayetano,” said Ungab.
“I really showed my disgust that the budget was slashed, but I did not show it in public. I did the budget, I talked to the Department of Budget and Management so that they will know what to do,” Ungab said.
He added that as a military reservist, he could not “stomach” the “rotten” tactic and that he will never allow himself to be falsely accused of being responsible for the P70 billion cut.
Addressing Yap, Ungab added: “Congressman Yap, I am not the one who removed that. Ask the former Speaker, he and LRay Villafuerte, they are the ones who finalized it. The people of the Philippines cannot blame me, it was the former Speaker.”
Villafuerte, in his interpellation, slammed Ungab for “unfairly dragging” his name into controversy. Villafuerte and Defensor remain allies of Cayetano.
While questioning Defensor, Villafuerte maintained that Ungab, as former House appropriations committee chair and head of the House delegation to the bicameral conference, was responsible and has control of the lower chamber’s version of the budget bill.
“Will Ungab sign something if there is irregularity in the budget? Now, my name and former Speaker Cayetano’s name are being dragged. My question is, do you think a seasoned veteran will sign something if he does not believe in it?” Villafuerte said.
He added: “Ultimately it is the appropriations chief who is responsible in dealing with this. For me, it is unfair that a former chairman names a former Speaker, deputy speaker when in fact, he was the one fully in charge of the budget.”
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