Updated 09:41 AM PHT Fri, January 6, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Eight congressmen from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao requested that ₱8.5 billion worth of funds from their districts be transferred to the budget for public works, the budget secretary disclosed Thursday.
"Sabi nila I might as well take away the one allocated to their district and ibibigay nalang namin sa public works," Diokno told The Source. "Kasi sa tingin nila mas transparent yung public works kaysa sa ARMM."
[Translation: They said might as well take away the one allocated to their district and give it instead to public works. Because they think public works is more transparent than ARMM.]
Diokno said that the congressmen felt that under the ARMM fund, "some of the money [is] allegedly stolen."
In last year's budget deliberations, the Senate first found ₱8 billion worth of ARMM projects under the Department of Public Works and Highways. Senators wanted to re-allocate the ₱8 billion from the DPWH directly to ARMM instead.
Later on, the House Bicameral Conference Committee supposedly realigned the money to state universities and colleges last month as a compromise.
In the latest development, Diokno confirmed that DPWH ended up getting ₱8.5 billion. He attributed this to Congress' directive.
"We noted that there were increases. The president instructed us to study the matter carefully," Diokno told CNN Philippines in a phone call. "Hindi necessarily that because may increase, that will be implemented. They will be subject to some guidelines."
Of the ARMM's eight congressmen, two died last year. The other representatives could not be reached for comment.
ARMM has consistently been ranked as one of the poorest regions in the country. The Ombudsman slapped graft and malversation charges against former and incumbent government officials in Basilan, Tawi-tawi, and Maguindanao last year.
Diokno said that Congress "had the power to authorize" and "make adjustments" to the budget.
However, he added that the executive branch takes into account a statement of difference, which records "the difference of what we submitted and what Congress approves."
"We can exercise judgment on that. Yun yung instruction ni Presidente [That's the instruction of the President]," said Diokno.
"We don't have the monopoly of wisdom," he added. "For example, may isang congressman na nag-identify ng isang magandang project [a congressman identified a good project] in lieu of what we have identified... We're open to that."
Diokno also clarified other issues surrounding ₱3.35 trillion national budget for 2017, which President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law last month.
‘No pork’ in national budget
Diokno disputed Senator Panfilo Lacson's claim that the ₱8 billion increase was part of pork money.
Lacson believes the national budget still contains Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a multi-million peso fund for congressmen and senators that was abolished after it was tapped for ghost projects in widespread corruption.
"I'm one of the petitioners against PDAF (and) pork eh. I won't allow it," Diokno assured. "In fact in this budget, I said, this is pork and PDAF-free."
Lacson also claimed that the ARMM congressmen had approached him during the budget plenary debates.
"Inabot nga kami ng 10 p.m. sa office ko explaining in so many words, thus — 'buti nga daw sila, tig ₱1.5-B lang na projects, yung iba raw mga congressmen abot ng tig ₱5-B,'" Lacson said in a press statement Wednesday.
[Translation: We reached 10 p.m. in my office explain in so many words, thus — 'they only got ₱1.5 billion for projects, other congressmen got P5 billion each.]
"Change is coming? Maybe, pero (but) it's pork allocations changing hands from LP congressmen to those from Mindanao," he added.
Lacson promised that once the details of DPWH and other agencies would be released, his team would "diligently scrutinize" the allocations.
Calamity fund ‘not a major problem’
Diokno also confirmed the calamity fund went down to ₱15 billion from ₱37 billion.
Lacson slammed the cut, citing typhoon victims and saying that the slash was done in favor of Duterte's congressional allies.
Diokno, however, maintained that the calamity fund had always been "over-budgeted" and it was "not a major problem."
"Kasi nga madaming natitira lagi," said Diokno. "So in fact, yung mga hindi nagastos nung 2016, puwedeng pa namin gastusin sa 2017."
[Translation: Because there is always a lot (of money) left... So in fact, the money that was not spent in 2016 can still be used in 2017.]
He added that other expenses after calamities, particularly from disasters over two years ago, are no longer included in the fund. Instead, they are redirected to expenses in DPWH, Department of Health, Department of Education, National Housing Authority, or other agencies.
"[The calamity fund is] really... rehabilitation, immediate relief, and repair," Diokno clarified. "The future requirements for public works in the affected areas, that should be part of the regular budget."