Monday, September 15, 2008

So whodunit? (2)

After Sen. Panfilo Lacson inquired from Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. and the latter claimed that it was a "congressional insertion," the release of the mysterious double appropriation of 200 million pesos was withheld, according to Andaya. In other words, Andaya admitted that it was a double entry for the same project. Accordingly, he will not release the 200 million.

Which raises the question: if the double appropriation had not been discovered, an "anonymous" smart operator could have been given a SARO by DBM for what is on the surface, a different project? One is listed as C-5, the other Carlos P. Garcia, on different pages of the GAA, in different sections of the budget.

Now on Tuesday afternoon, after media speculation revealed that the doubly-funded road with two names was a pet project of Senate President Manuel Villar, the head of the upper house called a press conference where he admitted that it was indeed his project, and that it was a good project that would serve the needs of the motoring public, especially the people of Cavite. He kept repeating "Cavite" as if to taunt Lacson who hails from the province.

He felt hurt that some of his colleagues signed a resolution asking for an investigation by the Committee of the Whole, and by insinuations that he pocketed public funds, or would have pocketed public funds pertinent to the double appropriation. But none of his colleagues accused him of that, and the reason they wanted the matter investigated by the whole Senate was because it had been speculated about that the "congressional insertion" was a Senate insertion - one of their colleagues.

One can understand the feelings of the Senate President. What is actually said in a committee hearing is subject to the interpretation of media which reports about it. And media can always add to their report, whether factual or speculative. What turned out to be factual was that the project did exist, and Villar did cause the addition of 200 million pesos to it, something he admitted in that Tuesday press conference.

Probably because of the hurt, Villar even hit some colleagues other than Lacson. One was twitted for "hiding under the skirts" of someone, a statement which media interpreted to refer to Senator Mar Roxas, who also signed the resolution to investigate, and is romantically linked to a well-known media personality who earlier that day, commented about the double appropriation. And while he claimed he welcomed the investigation on "congressional insertions," Villar wanted all such insertions to be similarly investigated.

The following day, his loyal political ally, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, filed another resolution, this time asking only the Committee on Finance chaired by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, to investigate. His reason? If three committees of the Senate, led by his Blue Ribbon, was good enough to investigate the 329 million dollar ZTE-NBN deal, why should the entire Senate investigate a mere 200 million peso double entry?

Cayetano begs the issue. In the ZTE deal, no member of the Senate was alleged to be involved. In the Carlos P. Garcia project, no less than the DBM Secretary, his friend and former colleague in the House, Nonoy Andaya, pointed to a "congressional insertion" by a senator of the realm.

The C-5 extension, also known as Carlos P. Garcia Avenue extension, is part of an over-all plan to connect the SLEX and the NLEX and the Coastal Road. It is a worthwhile project, and no one has disputed that. Senate President Villar said 2.1 billion pesos was needed to complete that extended portion, which is part and parcel of a 42-kilometer highway. A project of this funding requirement, without foreign financing, is usually done through continuing appropriations, as in 200 million now, 300 million next, 400 million, etc. Some of the money goes to actual construction, some to acquisition of private properties for right-of-way. But that's another story, another angle.

Per Villar's statements in the Tuesday press conference, he merely wanted to increase the 200 million appropriation by another 200 million, re-aligning therefore funds from some other DBM-submitted budgetary request. And this is usually done in the bicameral conference committee, the supra-powerful "third chamber" of Congress, where deliberations are not allowed to be recorded in the minutes, for "secrecy" rather than "transparency." Why this has been the practice of both chambers in the consideration of the final budget is a case study for public administration courses. I guess they also call this "good governance" and in the interest of "full accountability and transparency." Oh these trapos.

But if the 200 million pesos is indeed an additional funding for the road project, which ought to mean a longer portion of constructed road, then why was one listed as C-5 while the other, in the DBM-submitted President's budget, called, as it now is, Carlos P. Garcia Avenue? Should not Yolanda Doblon, the Senate's in-house budget expert, who has handled the GAA since the time of Senate President Neptali Gonzalez, have listed it as "To fund an additional portion of the Carlos P. Garcia Avenue Extension between SLEX and Sucat Road"?

Assuming that this was a case of "human error," (Doblon is quite thorough, and old-timers in the Senate attest to that) which former Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla, the Nacionalista Party spokesman, claims to be in the realm of the possible in various media interviews, then what gives Nonoy Andaya, Doña Gloria's minister of the purse, the right, nay, the audacity (to borrow from Barack Obama's lexicon) to claim that he has withheld, and will not release the additional 200 million pesos? Or perhaps, could it have been inserted after the bill was approved by Congress, and prior to final printing? Stranger things have happened in this country. They've done it in the case of other bills in some previous Congresses, we are told.

But whatever and however, the General Appropriations Act of 2008 is a law, passed by Congress, signed by Andaya's president. So how can he, a lawyer at that, unilaterally decide to stop payment on a legally-binding appropriation of the money of the Filipino people?

Senator Joker Arroyo faults the entire Senate for approving the 2008 GAA, and like himself, and like the Finance Committee chair, Senator Enrile, forgot to scrutinize every single line. Having so approved, then everyone must forever hold his peace, Joker pontificates. Why make a mountain out of a molehill, Joker fumes. 200 million a molehill? Oh these guys who live in Forbes and Dasmariñas. Is that what "pag-bad ka, lagot ka! means? If one realizes an error of omission, must he therefore keep quiet? Is that what senators are elected by the sovereign people for?

And young Alan Cayetano, coachmaster of the wagons circling the Senate President, says in an interview published by the Manila Times, "200 million is just loose change for Manny Villar". Barya lang pala ang 200 milyung piso para sa mga bukod na pinagpala. Wow!

Lacson merely asked questions of Andaya. The can of worms it has opened, if indeed there are maggots there, or the Pandora's box, a cube of surprises in the budget which expends monies of the people of the benighted land, needs to be explained in its full glory. As the buxom American singer, Dolly Parton, whose front is as legendary as her (at least by my taste) inability to sing, used to say, "Let it all hang."

In the process, taxpayers like you and I will see how the arcane art, science even, of budgetary magic, of cash instead of rabbits being produced out of hats by our "honourable" legislators, and spent by our "honourable" bureaucrats, comes about.

And how someone who does not know how to make "pakikisama" when it comes to husbanding the public till, is one person you and I, as taxpayers, should thank, precisely because he has refused to join the "old boys club".