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Aquino asks SC to lift TRO on pork barrel funds, says reforms will work

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President Benigno Aquino III. AP FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — Saying “reforms are already underway,” President Benigno Aquino III and fellow respondents have asked the Supreme Court to junk petitions seeking to have the pork barrel system declared as unconstitutional.

In a 23-page comment filed Monday, the Office of the Solicitor General also urged the high tribunal to lift the temporary restraining order on the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) in 2013.

The respondents argued that the TRO would “work to the damage of innocent citizens who rely on the operations of the PDAF for educational and medical assistance purposes.”

They cited the cases of 62-year-old Flora Rivera, who “depends on PDAF for her regular dialysis” at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, and Judy Grace Concordia, a college student from Valenzuela “whose scholarship is now at risk.”

“The reported abuses of the PDAF are problems of implementation, they do not go into the constitutionality of the law, as defined by this Honorable Court’s existing jurisprudence,” argued the OSG, which filed the comment for all respondents except Senate President Franklin Drilon.  The other main respondents are President Aquino, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.

The OSG comment called the Malampaya Fund and the President’s Social Fund – described by critics as Aquino’s pork barrel – as “special funds, the disposition of which have been constitutionally delegated to the President.”

“The Congress has the constitutional authority to create special funds and there is no constitutional basis to compel the Executive to include ‘off-budget’ items in the GAA [General Appropriations Act],” the respondents said.

The OSG insisted that Aquino “has officially declared his intent to abolish PDAF and has specified his plan to replace [it] with a defined program of line-item budgeting.”

Also cited was the new pork barrel mechanism under discussion at the House of Representatives, one that would adopt a “limited menu with more stringent qualifications for line-item projects in the 2014 budget.”

“A decision of the Honorable Court may preempt the efforts of the President and Congress, and a judicial solution may inadvertently limit a more progressive solution,” the OSG said.

“We therefore urge the Honorable Court to allow the reform-oriented political process to proceed. In any case, any solution by the political departments may be raised, and constitutionally scrutinized, at an appropriate time.”

Belmonte said on Tuesday, that each representative could propose up to five infrastructure projects to be implemented by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

Under the new pork barrel system, the agency would get 35 percent (or P7.21 billion) of the entire PDAF allocation in the national budget.

Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, vice chairman of the committee on appropriations, said DPWH projects would have to follow strict guidelines. For road projects, he said the priority would be those “leading to tourism destinations and production centers.”

“You can no longer have roads leading to your beach house,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Belmonte said party leaders in the House had been told about the new scheme, and that representatives would have to “specify” projects “to be included in the budget.”

“If they don’t conform to certain standards of the DPWH, they cannot be implemented,” he told reporters.

While the DPWH stood to enjoy the lion’s share in the “proposed limited menu for line-item projects,” education, health care and employment would each get 15 percent of the total PDAF. Crisis intervention programs would receive 20 percent.

“Under the Constitution, the calibration of the specific contours of the budget falls within the competence of Congress and the Executive,” the OSG said.

“The political branches are in the best position not only to perform budget-related reforms but also to do them in response to the specific demands of their constituents.”

Several civil society groups went to the Supreme Court, asking the high tribunal to declare the pork barrel system unconstitutional after the INQUIRER published a series of reports uncovering the P10-billion diversion of PDAF money to bogus nongovernment organizations as allegedly orchestrated by businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles.

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