Free ‘impounded’ funds in billions, GMA urged
The Daily Tribune
Instead of traipsing around the United States, begging bowl in hand for meager financial assistance for the damage Typhoon “Frank” wrought on the country, causing the M/V Princess of the Stars’ sinking, which resulted in the death of close to over 500, with some 600 still missing, senators yesterday called on President Arroyo to free billions of pesos in “impounded funds” from the national budget which they stressed can certainly be utilized to help people and places hit by the latest typhoon.
Opposition Sen. Francis Escudero identified at least P6.6 billion worth of funds which, if added to the Calamity Fund of P2 billion for the year, can vastly aid typhoon victims and even repair damaged public infrastructure.
“There is no reason aid should come in trickles to flood-hit areas when there are certain segments in the national budget, other than the calamity fund, which can be tapped for disaster work,” Escudero said.
These funds, he explained, are the P2 billion Kilos Asenso Fund, the P3.6 billion Financial Subsidy to Local Government Units and the P1 billion Kalayaan Barangay Fund
“The release of these funds is contingent on the President’s approval. She should dig into these funds so there will be more resources available for relief work,” the senator stressed, pointing out that “These (funds) are bigger than the $100,000 aid the President got from the US State Department, one which was met with profuse thanks from her, as if she had won the lotto, when in fact she has, at her easy disposal, all the above-mentioned funds to use in times such as this.”
Escudero stressed that the local government leaders canvassed have told him that they have not even received any allotment from Kilos Asenso or Kalayaan Barangay which means that these funds technically are still on embargo but can be freed.
Also yesterday, at least three senators urged Malacañang to tap Mrs. Arroyo’s vast pork barrel while appealing for the release of their counterpart funds to help in the relief and retrieval operations.
Sen. Rodolfo Biazon and Sen. Pia Cayetano made the twin call for the President to “unfreeze” their respective pork barrel allocations, also known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), while Sen. Manuel “Mar” Roxas II also called on Mrs. Arroyo to consider covering needed expenses through the Presidential Social Fund and other budgetary provisions under her office such
as the funds mentioned earlier by Escudero.
Cayetano, in a statement, took exception to comments that some senators have done little or nothing to help relief operations in Western Visayas which was badly devastated last week by typhoon Frank.
“Senators who have been critical of the administration and those aligned with the opposition have not been receiving funds due them under the PDAF for two to three years now,” she stressed.
“These senators, including myself, would have been in a position to help out more extensively in times of calamity, if only this administration has not been selective in the release of congressional allocations,” added the lady senator, whose congressional funds have been withheld by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) since the second half of 2005.
She said however, that in her case, with the help of friends in the private sector, non-government organizations, civic groups her office has also been able to shore up modest contributions to help relief efforts for the victims of typhoon Frank.
The same sentiment was also relayed by Biazon and Escudero, the former claiming that whatever is still remaining in his allotments has yet to be released.
“I would like it to be allocated toward the rehabilitation of the (Panay group of) islands. There have been no releases since the opening of the Garci tapes investigation,” he said.
“Rehabilitation will require the deployment of a lot of funding. I hope that Malacañang is listening to me,” Biazon, appearing in the weekly Kapihan sa Senado, said.
Rep. Ferjenel Biron of Iloilo’s fourth district and Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico both decried the slow unfreezing of the P2-billion Kilos Asenso Fund, which is included in the P228.2 billion Allocations for Local Government Units (ALGU) item in Republic Act 9498, or the General Appropriations Act for 2008. The biggest component in this block is the P210.7 billion earmarked for Internal Revenue Allotment of LGUs.
Also included in the ALGU is some P3.6 billion in “Financial Subsidy to LGUs”, which is designed to partly fund the premium contributions of local governments in the Phil Health enrollment of their indigent constituents.
“This can be used to address public health challenges which arose from the calamity, which include repair of hospitals, replenishment of medical stocks, and settlement of Phil Health claims, usage which meets the congressional intent about this particular expenditure”, he said
The Kalayaan Barangay on the other hand, forms part of the P51 billion budget of the Department of National Defense. To be imple-mented by the Armed Forces, the P1-bilion fund is intended for the development of dissident-threatened villages.
Roxas said the government could help ease the burden for families of victims of Typhoon “Frank” – including those on the ill-fated M/V Princess of the Stars – by facilitating and expediting the processing of necessary papers.
He said expenses can be covered through the Presidential Social Fund (PSF), which is collected from agencies such as the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).
According to Commission on Audit (CoA) reports, the PSF bank account had a balance of P2.7 billion as of Dec. 31, 2007. Forty percent of Pagcor proceeds go to the fund. “The President has discretionary funds for such contingencies and must spend as needed to help ease the plight of all those anxiously waiting for word on their kin, or those whose relatives have already been found among the casualties,” he said.
“The government should compel the relevant agencies to set up shop where the typhoon hit the hardest, where the victims are,” the senator added.
Among such agencies would be the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA), considering that some Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) were onboard the sunken ferry, as well as the Social Security System (SSS) and Government Service Insurance System (GSIS).
“The OWWA and other government offices should have their people on the ground, where it matters. I ask the officials of these agencies to work directly with the people. Don’t manage the problem by remote control,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Gordon yesterday defended the deployment by the US government of its aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the country, dispelling apprehension of some senators over the political consequences in allowing the nuclear warship’s entry in the country.
Gordon, concurrent chair of the Philippine National Red Cross said Mrs. Arroyo should be thanked instead as she followed up the request with the American President, who had promptly dispatched the warship.
“I don’t think we have time to quibble over this. I will ask people from China, from Japan, from Mars to help us if they can help. I don’t care,” Gordon, in a press conference, said.
He noted that even fighter planes and helicopters were of use in the rescue, retrieval or relief operations because they could fly over the area or ferry relief good to the typhoon-hit areas in Panay island.
“America is our principal military ally. You all know that. What are we talking about here? Sure there is the law but the policy is neither to confirm or deny and this is an ally telling us we neither confirm or deny. I accept it. I’m just a senator. Others may not accept it but as far as I’m concerned, would they like to tell the relatives of those who are missing that they don’t want the Americans here?” Gordon pointed out, as he groused about coming up with an apolitical statement “everytime we do something. We lose our focus. The focus today is on rescue, relief, rescue and relief, search and rescue. We should focus on that and we should be helpful that there are people who are helping us.”
But he also assailed Mrs. Arroyo for her statements holding Sulpicio Lines accountable for the sea tragedy may have led to the death of more than 700 people, saying “I condemn any act right now that is ‘pagwapo,’ including the President’s. We should refrain from saying who is at fault at this point because if we do so, then we condemn everybody, even the small fishermen who also went out during the typhoon,” he said.
At the same time, Gordon appealed to the “delicadeza” (sense of propriety) of some congressmen who joined Mrs. Arroyo in her US trip in the midst of the devastation wreaked by typhoon Frank. “There are many others who don’t need to be there. Unless they have a good reason to do so, out of delicadeza they should just go home,” he said.
Gordon was also in the President’s entourage, but quickly cut short his trip upon hearing of the damage done by the typhoon.
Predictably, House allies of Mrs. Arroyo yesterday scored Sen. Rodolfo Biazon for his negative statements regarding the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
Led by House Speaker Propero Nograles, they pointed out that the Philippine government should be grateful to the US for helping in the search and rescue operations in the accident that befell on M/V Princess of the Stars.
“Do not and never criticize voluntary help. It’s voluntary. People who do that should ask what have they done themselves?” Nograles said yesterday in a message to House reporters.