Last of Four Parts
WHEN President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III announced the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), he apparently meant nothing near getting rid of the controversial earmarks for the local pet projects of lawmakers.
Practical details of the “new” scheme are still being ironed out, and any real improvement in the proposed system may be evident only after the 2014 budget rolls out. Nevertheless, the broad plan presented by the House of Representatives is raising concerns that it may not really be that different from the old, often abused system.
For sure, instead of being a lump-sum item in the budget, the P25.44-billion pork barrel fund is being re-aligned to six key agencies, which will now have a bigger amount of PDAF money lodged under them as a result.
Each of these six agencies will also focus only on one type of pork-barrel project:
- The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will now solely be in charge of infrastructure projects;
- The Department of Health (DOH) of medical assistance;
- The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) of training, livelihood, and capacity-building programs;
- The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) of assistance to persons in crisis; and
- The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Department of Education (DepEd) of scholarships.
Yet while the power over funds has supposedly now shifted to the agencies, lawmakers may still identify infrastructure projects and nominate recipients subject to agency guidelines.
And this early, there are already indications that what has been left under the lawmakers’ discretion may conflict with the own guidelines and requirements of the implementing agencies.
For instance, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson says he has returned some of the project lists submitted by lawmakers because they do not adhere with DPWH’s new guidelines.
In the new system, lawmakers may choose from only four types of infrastructure projects: local roads, bridges, and footbridges; school buildings and academic buildings; multi-purpose buildings; and water supply level 2 (tanks with pipelines and common faucets) and level 3 (household faucets). Each project must also cost at least P2 million for a maximum total of P24.5 million.
DPWH has also tried to guide lawmakers to choose hard projects where it is most needed. Water supply projects, for example, should be based on the National Anti-Poverty Commission’s (NAPC) list of waterless municipalities. Road projects, meanwhile, should be implemented where it can connect to either a city or national road so the national road network will be completed. “That excludes those that are just left hanging or going nowhere, which only means these would just end up as a place to dry palay,” Singson says.
For all these, some lawmakers still submitted projects for multi-purpose buildings worth P500,000 or roads valued at P200,000, which Singson says are no longer acceptable. “Those lists were returned,” says the DPWH chief. “I will not implement those. If you will insist, I will not execute. It’s that simple.”
DPWH had come up with these rules to avoid going through a repeat of the difficulties it had in implementing past PDAF projects. In the old system, Singson says, lawmakers liked to break road projects into small chunks or propose partial funding for multi-purpose buildings just so they could maximize and spread out their PDAF in several barangays. This practice, he says, only resulted in substandard projects.
Singson explains that by DPWH standards, one kilometer of a farm-to-market road that is five meters wide and eight inches thick — with one-meter shoulder on both sides — could cost between P8 million and P12 million depending on the embankment and location.
“So that means, if DPWH will be asked to implement road concreting that is worth P200,000, only a driveway will probably be done,” he says. “That’s one example why I refuse retail-type projects.”
He also says that if a lawmaker will choose a multi-purpose building, he or she should allot full funding for it. “For a multi-purpose building, anything below P2 million will not be completed unless it’s only a shack or a shed,” says Singson. “I will not do those things if that’s not going to be a meaningful project.”
May still identify projects
In theory, the role of legislators in the new system will end once the budget is passed. But they will still be allowed to identify hard projects following the DPWH guidelines. Likewise, they will be able to recommend recipients of soft projects such as scholarships and medical assistance subject to the requirements of DSWD, DOH, DepEd, DOLE, and CHED.
In the old system, senators and congressmen were bound by rules set in the General Appropriations Act, but they had wide discretion over what kind of project to implement, which agency would carry it out, and who will benefit from it. But according to Davao City Rep. Isidro T. Ungab — also the chairperson of the House Committee on Appropriations and a member of the Liberal Party — lawmakers have now agreed to exercise their discretion or participation only in the preparation and authorization phases of the budget.
Ungab also says that all nominees of the legislators must possess the qualifications required by the agencies, which will now exercise full discretion over the projects. “An accountable officer will implement all the projects and legislator’s role is limited to mere recommendations,” he adds.
Ifugao Rep. Teodoro ‘Teddy’ Baguilat Jr. says, however, that in the old system, recommendations in his district had been helpful for many poor students who did not meet CHED’s or the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP)’s merit-based standards.
He says NCIP has shifted to merit-based grants and supports only the top 20 passers in its exam. CHED, meanwhile, only has around 15 scholars in Ifugao a year. “With our PDAF, we were able to assist 1,500 poor students a year,” Baguilat says. “We filled the gap that CHED and NCIP couldn’t address based on their national standards.”
Too, the second-term congressman says PDAF was able to provide what other government programs could not address. He points out that some patients are either not covered by PhilHealth or they need to go to better equipped hospitals outside of Ifugao.
This has been the recurring concern among many lawmakers, says Ungab. He says many congressmen do not want to give up PDAF because they want to make sure that their constituents — scholars and indigent patients — will continue to be supported.
There’s a view among lawmakers that only those from Metro Manila and not all the regions will benefit from government programs, Ungab says. As a result, when House members last month voted to remove PDAF as a lump-sum item, they decided to transfer the funds into six agencies to ensure that substantial amounts would still be allocated across all regions.
Asked about the continuation of patronage politics in the new system, Ungab admits that it has still been the reality on ground not just for lawmakers, but all local officials.
He agrees that the legislators’ main role is to make laws. But he says that once they go home to their districts, people seek help from them. That is why Ungab says he sees to it that he balances his responsibilities in the appropriations committee and in his district.
Singson, for his part, anticipates that some lawmakers will still try to influence district engineers and recommend contractors as in the practice before. But the secretary says he has issued a department order reminding DPWH officials that they will be held accountable if such irregularities are found out. It will be a case of command responsibility, Singson said.
“District engineers will have to answer for that (irregularities) because they will be the ones signing the contract,” says Singson. “If they do not conduct proper bidding, we will see that because I monitor all the biddings. I get the results. (I would know) if the same contractor wins again and again,” he says.
A balancing act
CHED chairperson Dr. Patricia Licuanan meantime says that the new system will require some form of balancing act. “We don’t want people to think that it is just a kunwari (pretend) — hindi na PDAF pero PDAF pa rin…” she says.
CHED has been implementing scholarships funded by PDAF for many years. Licuanan says the arrangement before had not been entirely ideal. For some scholarships, CHED served only as conduit between the coordinator employed by the lawmaker and the scholar. The role of lawmakers in the old system was very dominant, she remarks.
This system at CHED has since been changed when the Commission on Audit (COA) called CHED’s attention to it. The audit body found that CHED had treated PDAF scholarships differently from its regular scholarships, with CHED allowing lawmakers to specify the amount and the beneficiaries.
Licuanan says CHED stopped giving scholarships to middle persons and instead dealt directly with scholars. This way, she says, CHED is certain that the scholarship goes to warm bodies, unlike before when it was not sure this was so.
She also says that while the nuts and bolts of the new scheme are still being settled, it will most likely be guided by CHED’s existing scholarship guidelines. Licuanan says that CHED will call the shots now because projects would have to abide by its rules. “We just have to make sure that we are not pressured because everyone is free to nominate anyway,” she says.
Health Secretary Enrique Ona himself sees no issue with lawmakers recommending recipients. At least for health, he says, one could actually see patients being discharged from the hospitals and benefitting from PDAF. He adds that making recommendations is part of regular daily life. But he concedes that it may be a problem if someone who is not deserving or qualified is favored just because a recommendation was made.
Mock checks from solons
PCIJ research on PDAF in 2012 shows that medical assistance offered in government hospitals in Metro Manila came in the form of mock checks and guarantee letters affixed with the lawmaker’s photo and signature. This somehow gives the idea that the assistance actually came from the senator’s or a congressman’s own money. But the health secretary, who was executive director of the National Kidney and Transplant Institute for 11 years, says he is not aware of the practice.
Ona cannot say exactly how the new system for medical assistance will be implemented because it is part of ongoing consultations. He says though that just like before, the additional funds will be used as supplement to existing government health programs such as PhilHealth.
The fund that will be added to DSWD’s budget, meanwhile, will also be used to support its existing Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation (AICS) under the Department’s Protective Services Program. Through AICS, indigent individuals and families may access five types of services from DSWD: food, transportation, burial, medical, and education assistance. AICS is being implemented by DSWD’s regional Crisis Intervention Units (CIU).
A power equation
Mateo G. Montaño, undersecretary for DSWD’s General Administration and Support Services Group, says the new scheme may not be different from how DSWD has been implementing its existing program. But one difference, he notes, is that DSWD will now have a much bigger budget for AICS. Montaño says that DSWD’s Central Office, for instance, is provided only P12 million a year for its CIU.
He says the public needs to understand the dynamics between a lawmaker and the so-called implementing agency in the old PDAF system. He points out, “The power (was) not equal between the implementer and the legislator.”
In the old system, a lawmaker’s participation is dominant because he was allowed to identify projects and beneficiaries. “Which is why it is difficult to say that we were implementing their project,” he says. “We were managing it for them actually.”
But Montaño is hopeful that the new system will be more manageable because it focuses only on one project. “(The legislators’) discretion is limited,” he says, although he admits that DSWD is still unsure just what those limits are.
In any case, Montaño says congressmen may still recommend recipients the same way local executives do. But he says they all have to follow DSWD’s rules. “There’s no implicit or explicit line here that tells them that they have entitlement or rights to this fund because it is no longer stated that way,” he says.” It is our program so it’s for the public but they can still recommend.”
Just as in its existing system, DSWD will set requirements such as barangay certificate of indigency, medical abstract for those requiring medical assistance, and death certificate for those in need of burial assistance. Social workers will also interview applicants and assess them according to their need.
Montaño says anybody can apply for assistance but DSWD gives preference to beneficiaries or households listed in its National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction, as well as to informal settlers and other vulnerable and marginalized groups.
The new mechanism will definitely entail more workload and require additional staff, says Montaño. Indeed, DWSD and four of the other five agencies that will be taking care of PDAF projects under the new system will have additional projects that would need to be carried out on top of their regular program of work.
More pork monies
Except for DPWH, which had always been the biggest implementer of pork projects, DSWD, CHED, DOH, DOLE, and DepEd will need to fulfill projects that are roughly four to 15 times more than the pork-funded projects that they used to implement in the last three years.
CHED alone will get an additional P2.44 billion, which is close to its current budget of P2.78 billion.
CHED data show that from 2010 to 2013, it implemented a total of P793.88 million in scholarships funded by PDAF. On average, CHED has only discharged about P264 million in scholarships a year. This figure is far lower than what CHED will have to discharge of in 2014.
CHED will now provide the scholarships that used to go directly to state universities and colleges (SUCs), National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP), and LGUs in the previous practice.
Licuanan says she has no sure answers yet, but CHED will certainly do its best with its new tasks since in the first place, it is the agency that should be in charge of scholarships.
“Kakayanin,” she says, “because we are asking ourselves what we have to do about our structure, what we will need to do in our regional offices in order to able to handle this influx of almost P3 billion.”
According to Licuanan, CHED is exploring the possibility of hiring one scholarship coordinator per region to make use of their regional offices more efficiently. Another option that CHED is looking into is to tap or go directly to SUCs, which might help make things more manageable.
Health Secretary Ona meanwhile says that the new system may entail more workload for DOH. But he says DOH is willing to work even double or triple the requirement because there is just so much more need. “When we say more workload, it essentially means more planning,” says Ona.
From the annual average of P874.42 million of PDAF implemented by public hospitals in the last three years, DOH will carry out four times more or P3.69 billion of medical assistance in 2014. It will also now be in charge of the funds that used to go to the Philippine General Hospital, Western Visayas State University Hospital, and LGUs for health-related projects.
As for DSWD, it will receive P4.71 billion of additional funds or five times of what it used to get in previous years. According to Montaño, DSWD had discussions with the Department of Budget and Management, during which it was proposed that one percent of the amount be used for administrative services to hire additional staff. At present, DSWD has about 2,500 regular employees but it also hires employees under job orders.
Similar challenges lie in wait for the DOLE and DepEd.
DOLE will implement funds 15 times more than what it used to carry out before. It will get an additional P3.69 billion next year, a big increase from its annual average of just P241 million in the last three years. Its proposed PDAF budget is also more than its proposed agency budget of P3.53 billion for 2014.
DepEd will also get a much higher amount than what it usually implements before — from an average of P92 million a year to P1.02 billion in 2014.
Only DPWH will have less workload because there will be a much shorter project menu to choose from. From an average of P10.25 billion a year, DPWH is set to implement P9.65 billion in PDAF projects in 2014.
In the past, the projects that DPWH implemented would even reach 12,000 a year because of PDAF projects divided into small chunks. The Department’s regular program of work covers only 3,500 projects annually.
Once finalized, the lawmakers’ project lists will be included in the DPWH budget as line items. During project implementation, projects per district will be clustered into four contract packages such that all classrooms will be under one contract and so on.
Singson says the process will be systematic and projects will be implemented more efficiently. He says details of the projects will be available so communities will have the chance to participate and monitor the projects.
“This is where communities will have to participate,” says Singson. “They should monitor these projects. That’s why it’s in our website. They can check where these are located so these will not be ghost projects.”
“Now,” he says, “if communities will not participate, they will turn a blind eye, then they should not complain.” — PCIJ, October 2013