Zubiri wants LGUs’ use of secret funds clipped
Any legislative proposal to clip the authority of national state agencies to use confidential and intelligence funds (CIFs) should also cover local government units (LGUs), according to Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri.
Zubiri issued the remarks amid an ongoing audit being conducted by a Senate oversight committee on CIFs.
He was also responding to the plan of Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III to file a measure limiting the allocation of lump-sum funds for undercover operations to select government agencies.
The Senate leader, however, did not mention the issues hounding Vice President Sara Duterte, who reportedly received a staggering P2.7 billion in confidential funds when she served as mayor of Davao City from 2016 to 2022 based on the annual audit reports of the Commission on Audit.
“[Pimentel’s proposal] is actually good. But that can be controversial,” Zubiri said in a radio interview on Saturday.
“The people are now focused on the national government agencies. What about the LGUs? If you look at the [budgets] of LGUs, almost all of them have confidential funds,” he said. “Those amounts are very significant. You should also examine them.”
He pointed out further that the CIFs of some cities amounted to 90 percent of their yearly expenditure program. Zubiri was referring to the percentage of LGUs that have CIFs and not the total annual budget of the city governments.
But Zubiri also acknowledged that scrutinizing the confidential fund allotments of LGUs would not be easy because Republic Act No. 7160, or the Local Government Code, grants fiscal autonomy to towns, cities and provinces.
Ironically, he said, it was Pimentel’s father and namesake, the late Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who authored the law that allowed LGUs to craft their own spending plan based on their internal revenue allotments.
“Just to be fair,” the Senate President said, “if you want to do that for national government agencies, it should also be done with the LGUs because they also use people’s money.”
CIF of ecozone
Zubiri affirmed the need to rein in the use of CIFs by civilian agencies as he commended the House of Representatives for initiating the move to funnel these funds to intelligence and law enforcement agencies directly involved in protecting the West Philippine Sea.
He disclosed that a state agency managing an economic zone, which he did not identify, spent “tens of millions” of pesos in confidential funds as payment for informal settlers and to finance the transfer of relocation sites.
“That’s the mandate of DHSUD,” he said, referring to the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development.
“CIFs are not needed for that. We should just place that amount as line item (budget) of DHSUD for the relocation of those people. That’s what should have been done,” he maintained.
The review of the questionable expenditure was part of the Senate audit.
Zubiri also praised Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo and Ombudsman Samuel Martires for their decision to give up the confidential funds of their agencies.
Under the proposed P5.768-trillion national budget for 2024, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was given P50 million for its confidential expenses while P51.5 million was set aside for the Office of the Ombudsman.
Zubiri said the allocations of the DFA and the Ombudsman would be realigned to the Philippine Coast Guard and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, respectively.
“This is a major development. We thank Ombudsman Martires and Secretary Manalo for their willingness to give up their CIFs. I think most of their needs can be addressed by line items in the budget,” he said.
Better use of money
Reacting to the recent report on the confidential fund spending of Duterte, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) reiterated its call to stop the confidential fund “spree” that has been a tradition in the Philippine budget system.
Had the confidential funds through the years been used for basic services such as education, it could have been of good use, ACT chair Vladimer Quetua said in a statement on Sunday.
The P2.697-billion confidential fund spent by Duterte when she was mayor of Davao City could have given 77,000 teachers an additional P5,000 cash allowance annually in six years, or the P385 million a year could have built 154 new classrooms or 924 new classrooms in six years, or buy 11,332 laptops for teachers, Quetua noted.
ACT reminded the public that a centavo spent by any government agency is a public fund and that it should be used properly.
“We need to be more vigilant about the government spending because it is the people’s money and not their own money especially now that the economic crisis is worsening. Lastly, ACT reiterates its call to abolish the confidential funds in the 2024 budget,” the group said.
Duterte declined to comment on the issue raised by ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro about the confidential funds during her mayoralty in Davao.
“I’m currently eating peanuts while watching and listening to France Castro and all those supporting her,” she said in a Viber message. “The official statement: No comment as of the moment.”
Help for farmers
Meanwhile, another lawmaker wanted the confidential funds reallocated to the National Food Authority (NFA) to purchase palay from farmers as seed money for the proposed Department of Water Resources (DWR).
Nueva Ecija Rep. Rosanna Vergara, chair of the House committee on social services, said on Sunday that the confidential funds should also be allocated to agencies that would benefit farmers especially in the sale of their palay.
“If I will be asked, I want [the confidential funds] to benefit the farmers or have these allocated as budget for the NFA so they can buy palay from our farmers and so that traders won’t dictate the prices,” Vergara said in an interview with dzBB radio.
She also suggested that with the budget, the government would be able to identify provinces and regions where palay selling prices are below cost.
In suggesting that the realigned intelligence funds be channeled to the DWR, with the bill seeking its creation now pending in Congress, Vergara noted that “water as a resource is very important, we can live without electricity but not without water.”
Vergara said at least P500 million of the confidential funds could be used for the proposed government agency.