No infrastructure funds for 24 opposition congressmen in 2018 budget

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The death penalty bill is set for final reading Tuesday via nominal voting at the House of Representatives.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 20) — Twenty-four congressmen critical of the administration were denied funds for their districts' infrastructure in the P3.77-billion national budget for 2018, an opposition lawmaker said Wednesday.

Representative Edcel Lagman of Albay said he and members of the so-called opposition group "Magnificent 7" which include him and representatives Egay Erice, Teddy Baguilat, Gary Alejano, Tom Villarin, Raul Daza, and Emmanuel Billiones were given zero budget for infrastructure funds under the recently signed 2018 General Appropriations Act.

"Vengeance plus caprice equal zero allocations for authentic opposition Representatives and other targeted legislators in the House of Representatives," he said in a statement.

He did not mention the other 17 congressmen who were denied their infrastructure budgets.

The 24 solons' "steadfast critical dissent and perceived 'waywardness'" cost them their constituents' budget and deprived them of progress, Lagman said.

"Zero allocations are projected to punish and silence opposition legislators even as it is their constituencies who are deprived of the benefits of infrastructure development," he said.

Akbayan Party-list Representative Tom Villarin condemned President Rodrigo Duterte for taking his revenge on the opposition by withholding crucial projects for the public.

In an interview with CNN Philippines Wednesday, Villarin said the budget cuts were "unprecedented" and "highly quesationable" as they were made at the last minute – before the President signed the 2018 budget.

"It speaks much about the dictatorial tendencies of this administration," Villarin said.

The budget slash is the Duterte administration's warning to lawmakers to support the agenda of the administration, especially the creation of a constitutional assembly and the proposed shift to federalism, Villarin said.

"It serves as fair warning to the rest of the House members that all must obey and support the move for a Con-Ass, no elections in 2019, and a shift to constitutional authoritarianism. Punishing democratic dissent by letting people suffer through withdrawal of basic government services is pure hubris," he said in a statement.

Lagman said that when they asked Appropriations Chairman and Head of the House Bicameral Panel Rep. Karlo Nograles what became of their funding, Nograles referred them to House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Alvarez is a staunch supporter of Duterte.

More opposition lawmakers speaking up

Magdalo Party-list Representative Gary Alejano released a statement saying the budget allocations for infrastructure were not for lawmakers, but for their constituents.

"If our recommendations are slashed, then it is our constituents that are disenfranchised," he said,

Alejano said this move by the administration is a clear attempt to stifle healthy dissent, and people who need the government's attention will be deprived of it.

Caloocan Representative Egay Erice meanwhile, said he would not be cowed by the budget cut.

"I will fight to the last drop of my blood before the courts and on the streets if necessary to protect the 8 million Filipinos who will be benefitting from the projects," he said in a statement.

He called out House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and House Appropriations committee Chairman Karlo Nograles, asking if they had the authority to delete budgets already approved by the House and proposed by the government.

Erice had strong words for House leaders saying power had gone to Alvarez's head, and that he would remind people during the next elections that Nograles would deprive them of important projects.

More for Duterte's allies

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said the lawmakers' infrastructure budgets were slashed during the bicameral committee conference last week. The 2018 national budget was adjusted before it was signed by Duterte on Tuesday, he said, adding that distinctions were made between administration and opposition lawmakers.

Diokno said opposition lawmakers will not get zero budgets, but the supporters of President Duterte will have more funds for their projects.

"If you're with us then you get something. If you're not with us then you don't get something... Allies will get more. More projects," Diokno said in a media briefing.

However he denied this is a form of pork barrel, which has already been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

This is because lawmakers do not get to control the funding or decide how to use it, Diokno said. Congressmen can recommend projects but it will be the executive branch who will undertake them. A strict process is also followed to make sure public funds are used wisely.

"Projects go through a process of review by the regional development councils, so some of them may be approved, some of them may be disapproved, some may be deferred," he said.

CNN Philippines' correspondents Claire Jiao and Joyce Ilas, senior digital producers Lara Tan and Pia Garcia contributed to this report.