Pimentel: VP’s secret funds may be restored in bicam
Lawmakers may not have heard the last of the debates over Vice President Sara Duterte’s request for P650 million in confidential funds even after she withdrew the proposed allocations, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III warned on Friday.
The proposal for the P500 million in confidential funds for the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the P150 million for the Department of Education (DepEd), which Duterte also heads, could still be resurrected during the deliberations of the bicameral committee, or the bicam, the Senate minority leader said.
At an online press briefing, Pimentel urged those calling for the abolition of confidential and intelligence funds (CIFs) for civilian state agencies to remain vigilant as “anything goes” in the joint panel that the Senate and the House of Representatives would convene to iron out their differences in the proposed annual spending law.
“Theoretically speaking, [the confidential funds] may still be restored in the bicameral committee. That’s the truth and unfortunate [thing] that may happen in the bicam,” Pimentel told reporters.
“That’s why those who are interested should stand guard over this issue until the end. They should keep an eye on the bicam report” on the proposed P5.768-trillion national budget for 2024, he said.
Speaking through Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, who was defending the government’s yearly budget, Duterte said on Thursday that she was dropping her request for confidential funds as the matter had become “divisive.”
‘Anything can happen’
The House had earlier scrapped P650 million in total confidential funds for the OVP and DepEd, a move that the Senate supported by adopting the general appropriations bill.
According to Pimentel, senators and House members could backpedal on their decision to strip both the OVP and DepEd of confidential funds.
While such possibility was “far-fetched,” the opposition senator conceded that lawmakers may still have a change of heart.
“Anything can happen in Philippine politics and that would be one of the biggest disappointments and one of the biggest political stories of the year if that happens,” Pimentel said.
Even his colleagues, he added, may also propose to bring the funds that they had already slashed back to the OVP and DepEd during the period of amendments of the budget law they were crafting.
But that would be a “pointless exercise,” Pimentel said.
“Let’s not waste time debating whether we should allot funds to an agency that did not want it,” he said.
At the House, appropriations panel chair Rep. Elizaldy Co said he was hopeful that the Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of the proposed 2024 national budget should Pimentel question it, particularly the allocation of intelligence funds for the Office of the President (OP).
.Pimentel on Thursday said the OP is a civilian agency that was already a “consumer” of intelligence information from various sources, including the military and the police, so there was no need to spend for it separately.
The senator said the proposed P4.5 billion in CIF for the OP was nearly half of the P10.64-billion CIF request in the 2024 budget.
Cutting back on CIF allocations would be a cost-saving measure to allow the country to cope with the effects of the ballooning national debt, which amounted to P14.27 trillion in September, he added.
Co was confident that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of the budget in case it is challenged.
“We believe that, in the end, the high court will uphold the validity of the 2024 budget designed to combat inflation, provide food on the table and take care of the welfare of the Filipino people,” the Ako Bicol representative said in a statement to the Inquirer.
ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said P2.3 billion just for the intelligence fund for President Marcos would go against “the spirit of transparency and accountability” in government, making reference to the special audit of the secret funds that is beyond public scrutiny.
At an online press conference on Friday, Castro assured the public that the Makabayan bloc will “continue to fight the confidential funds until the very last minute in the bicameral conference.”
“We urge our fellow lawmakers to stand firm in the commitment to public service and reject any budgetary provisions that undermine the democratic process and the rights of the Filipino people,” Castro said.
She pressed Congress to pass a measure that will abolish confidential funds in civilian agencies and clearly define the entitlement of government agencies to the much-criticized appropriation.
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas said Duterte’s decision to drop her request for confidential funds was a “mere attempt to save face.”She said the Vice President’s move “won’t abate the anger of the people against confidential funds which are so vulnerable to corruption.”
“It is now a big issue because the people now know that huge amounts go into confidential and intelligence funds, but we don’t know how it is spent,” Brosas said during the same online press briefing.
The House assistant minority leader said Duterte should first answer questions on how she spent P125 million in confidential expenses in the last days of 2022 without congressional authorization.