Still underspending up to now

April 11, 2016

The more sober legislative inquiry into the violence-marred dispersal last April 1 of protesting farmers and fisher folks at Kidapawan was conducted last Friday at the Senate discovered another case of underspending by government. It turned out so much budget provided by the government to mitigate the effects of El Niño phenomenon had not been disbursed as programmed.

Senator Loren Legarda called for this separate Senate inquiry in Manila in her capacity as chairperson of both the Senate committees on finance and climate change. Legarda looked into the Kidapawan protest staged by El Niño-affected farmers and fisher folks that was reportedly infiltrated by left-leaning militants who instigated trouble. Reports reaching Manila have it that farmers and fisher folks were promised sacks of rice for their starving families following the long drought that damaged their rice and corn crops.

It took place a day after the Senate committee on justice and human rights conducted in Davao City their inquiry into alleged excessive use of force by policemen to remove the three-day old roadblock put up by protesters at the highway linking Kidapawan to Davao. The dispersal resulted in the reported death of three farmers and injury to scores of protesters and policemen. The focus of that Senate inquiry was more of a police probe.

Initiating her own inquiry in aid of legislation, Legarda explained her focus was on reported failure and shortcoming by concerned government agencies to deliver intervention measures to prepare for the projected El Niño, or the long dry spell in the country, especially the areas that would be hardest hit.

National government agencies invited to the Senate hearing included officials and representatives from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM); National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA); Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD); Department of Agriculture (DA); Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR); Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG); Climate Change Commission (CCC); National Food Authority (NFA); and, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

But it was only NEDA director general Emmanuel Esguerra, head of the inter-agency committee on El Niño, who appeared at the Senate hearing. The other Cabinet secretaries did not attend but sent their respective undersecretaries.

The NEDA chief assuaged Legarda there was no food shortage but more than enough supply of rice. He conceded, however, the government’s assistance may not have indeed reached intended beneficiaries on time.

A very dismayed Legarda could not contain her irritation after she found out the Congress-approved budget to cover for El Niño mitigating measures were not spent as much as they should have been.

Among other regular budget items, Legarda pointed out the 2016 General Appropriations Act (GAA) is filled with general and special provisions for funds that can be utilized for climate change adaptation and mitigation. This is aside from “special funds” in the GAA like the annual P1 billion People’s Survival Fund as additional source for disaster risk reduction and rehabilitation purposes.

From the Senate computation, Legarda estimated as much as P52.81 billion of quick respond funds (QRF) for El Niño phenomenon and other emergencies are available. However, due to slow action of national and local government agencies in affected areas, the much-needed assistance was not reaching intended beneficiaries.

At the Senate hearing, the DA reported to Legarda their agency still has P11.9 million balance of their QRF for 2015 and P496.6 million for 2016. From the DSWD, they reported a balance of P703.6 million in their 2015 QRF and another P1.6 billion for 2016. Meanwhile, NDRRMC executive director retired Gen. Alexander Pama disclosed there is still P5 billion left over from 2015 and P43 billion for 2016 at their disposal.

These QRF are public funds precisely allocated to address the impact of El Niño and its opposite extreme weather condition of much rain called La Niña phenomenon, and other natural and man-made calamities.

While these allocations are for the entire year, the senator noted with concern, huge amounts remained underspent until the first quarter of this year.

“It’s really clear that the government has the funds. The national government has the funds in your respective agencies. It’s very clear that there is a seeming disconnect between the funds available and the utilization of funds,” Legarda fumed.

This obviously aggravated the sentiments of Kidapawan farmers and fisher folks who are suffering from such government neglect on their plight.

These laments were aired at the first Senate hearing in Davao into the Kidapawan incident. But Senate majority leader Alan Peter Cayetano, and Senators Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III had other concerns they looked into.

Cayetano and Guingona, both candidates in the coming May 9 elections, set aside their respective campaign sorties to conduct this public hearing into this highly emotional and controversial case. Cayetano is the vice presidential runningmate of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Guingona is up for re-election under the 12-man senatorial ticket of the administration-backed Liberal Party.

Although he is not a candidate, Pimentel is the party chieftain of the PDP-Laban carrying Duterte as their presidential standard-bearer. At least, we know where the three senators are coming from in tackling the Kidapawan incident.

Legarda is now on her last term at the Senate ending in June, 2019. She waged her campaign for environment and climate change when she ran but lost for the vice presidential race, first in 2004 and then in 2010. Incidentally, the Comelec-sponsored debate for the six vice presidential candidates running this May 9 elections took place yesterday.

In the case of Legarda, politics is her least priority in the appreciation of the Kidapawan incident. Legarda’s inquiry clearly showed the government is still underspending even as the Aquino administration winds down its last 80 days in office. For whatever reason, we could only speculate.

Source: Philstar