No last-minute secret fund insertions in budget – Congress
December 1, 2023 | 12:00am
MANILA, Philippines — There was no last-minute move by Congress to restore the P650-million confidential funds (CF) in the budgets for next year for the office of Vice President Sara Duterte and the Department of Education, which she also heads.
The appropriations committee heads of both houses of Congress, Sen. Sonny Angara and Ako Bicol Rep. Elizaldy Co gave the assurance at yesterday’s bicameral conference committee on the 2024 General Appropriations Bill held at the Manila Golf and Country Club in Makati.
“I don’t think so,” Angara said on the sidelines of the meeting when asked if the P500 million CF for the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the P150 million for DepEd would be restored.
The odds are not in the Vice President’s favor this time, unlike last year when the DepEd’s CF for 2023 slashed to P30 million by the Senate was restored to its original P150 million level during bicam, supposedly to help DepEd protect children from syndicates and communist recruitment.
For the 2024 budget, a restoration was ruled out after Duterte herself told Congress that she was no longer interested in seeking CF next year, following backlash for her use of secret funds traditionally reserved for intelligence and security agencies.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III first raised the possibility of Congress bringing back Duterte’s secret funds, saying – at a virtual briefing on Nov. 10 – that the “bicam has the power to introduce and restore anything.”
Angara said the Senate mostly adopted the House version of the bill realigning P1.23 billion in confidential funds from civilian to security agencies.
But while the bicam stripped Duterte’s offices of her CF, it left untouched the Office of the President (OP)’s P2.31 billion intelligence and P2.25 billion confidential funds, totaling P4.56 billion or almost half of its P10.7-billion budget next year.
“The OP needed that fund especially in these uncertain times of war, terrorism, hijacking, kidnapping,” Angara said.
The approved 2024 budget has a total budget of P9.82 billion confidential and intelligence funds (CIF).
Meanwhile, Co said the House of Representatives contingent in the bicam would study a special provision in the Senate version that seeks to prohibit the use of contingent funds for confidential funds, which was done by Duterte in 2022 so that her office could have P125 million CF.
Such provision was proposed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, after the opposition senator flagged the OVP’s unauthorized use of the P221.424 million contingent fund her office received from the OP to be used as confidential funds in 2022 despite having no line item that year.
Petitioners have questioned before the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the OVP’s move to fund a nonexistent item, urging the Vice President to revert the P125-million budget to the treasury.
Asked if there were major changes in the fine-tuned version of the budget bill, Angara said the bicam will decide whether or not to restore a portion of the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s P300-million CF to bolster the country’s cybersecurity.
Sen. JV Ejercito supported the move, saying “cybercrime and online scams are the new enemy of the ordinary Filipino.”
Portions of the secret funds were also realigned to cybercrime offices of law enforcement agencies but under specific line items meant to combat digital crimes, Ejercito added.
Congress also maintained its position to increase the confidential and intelligence funds of agencies tasked to safeguard the West Philippine Sea, he said.
Asked if any confidential funds of civilian agencies were restored at the last minute, Ejercito said: “I don’t think it will be.”
“We were consistent in our stand that the confidential and intelligence funds of civilian agencies be realigned or to be put under a specific line item like maintenance and other operating expenses,” he added.
Meanwhile, Co said the approved budget program for next year is designed to help the “poorest of the poor” and not just to keep prices stable.
He also cited the need for contingencies in case another war like Ukraine’s or Israel’s comes along.
“We need these for our social services because we’ll never know if another problem will arise by way of conflicts, or even in the global inflation. That is why we really have to be prepared to help the lower middle class and the poorest of the poor, or the near poor,” the Ako Bicol congressman said.