Scholars, patients? DepEd, DOH get least of realigned PDAF

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – It's final: the House of Representatives will remove lawmakers' lump sum discretionary fund from the proposed P2.268 trillion national budget for 2014, and will distribute the amount to national agencies. 

After meeting for two days, lawmakers on Wednesday, September 11, agreed at the committee level to realign their controversial P25.2-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to 6 line agencies. 

It was an "almost" unanimous decision, said House appropriations committee chairman Isidro Ungab. Only ACT Teachers Rep Antonio Tinio voted against the proposal. (Editor's note: We earlier reported it was former Taguig City Rep Sigfrido Tinga. We apologize for the error.) 

Ironically, while congressmen had been justifying the retention of discretion over the PDAF by citing the scholars and indigent patients they had to support, they chose to realign the least amount to the education and health departments.

The biggest chunk of the pie will go to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) at 35% or P8.82 billion because the agency has the best "absorptive capacity," Ungab said. 

The DPWH is the implementing agency for "hard projects," such as building of roads and bridges. 

The Commission on Higher Education will get only 10% or P2.52 billion, while the Department of Education will get 5% or P1.26 billion – the smallest slice of the pie.

Meanwhile, 15% of the pork barrel will go to the Department of Health. 

Unclear guidelines

Will the lawmakers still be able to access such funds?

Ungab said lawmakers can only "recommend" where they can be spent, but not command implementing agencies. 

It would be up to the line agency to decide on whether they will integrate a solon's proposed project to their budget, which will be included as line items in the national budget. 

"That has always been always the question: What will happen to the present scholars, what will happen to the present patients, those undergoing dialysis, mental patients? We listened to the sentiments of the congressmen most especially from rural areas," Ungab said.

"But there is no discretion anymore. Whatever the policy of the hospital, college should be followed," Ungab said. 

Lawmakers can make their recommendations in the two weeks that the 2014 General Appropriations Act will be discussed in the plenary. 

There is no limit as to the amount of projects a congressman can recommend – subject to the discretion of the line agency. 

Asked whether a congressman may recommend projects worth more than P70 million – the amount of their current pork barrel – Ungab said it would be difficult to impose a ceiling or a limit. But the total amount of proposed projects from Congress cannot exceed the additional funding it will receive from the PDAF. 

This indicates that lawmakers will not have equal access to the funds – with lobbying and political alliances possibly affecting which "recommendations" will be considered by the agencies – unlike now where lawmakers have a uniform amount of allocations.

The multibillion pork barrel scam sparked a public clamor to scrap the controversial fund following reports that lawmakers channeled funds to bogus non-governmental organizations in exchange for kickbacks.

Days before a social media-fueled people's march in August, President Benigno Aquino III announced the government is abolishing the PDAF and installing a new pork barrel scheme. 

Ungab said the PDAF as we used to know it is now "gone and barren."

"It's gone, it's been buried. We united to set aside all our parochial concerns for the sake of national interest," Ungab said. – Rappler.com