Blessed LGUs

MUTUALLY reinforcing interests — all too often political interests — between national and local politicians to this day drives the selection of which local government units (LGUs) should be blessed with generous servings of projects funded with pork.

It has been dressed up to be an “equalizer,” but the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or simply, pork, remains very much a political tool for senators and congressmen who spread the bulk of their pork pesos to LGUs governed by their mother, father, sibling, cousin, or ally.

All too often, too, these LGUs are the hometowns or bailiwicks of national politicians. Quite a number of cities and towns rewarded with big amounts of pork are among the most densely populated with voters, even as they are not among the nation’s poorest.

But happy days for these LGUs may soon be over, hopefully, with the recent decision of the House of Representatives to take out the PDAF as a lump-sum item in the budget, and re-align it into just six national agencies, excluding LGUs.

The proposed “new mechanism” for disbursing PDAF could be bad news to many LGUs that had for years been the big recipients of pork funds from legislators.

In the 15th Congress, from July 2010 to June 2013, one in every three projects that lawmakers had listed for pork funding was implemented either by a province, city, municipality, or a barangay.

This is roughly P17.7 billion of the total P60.4-billion releases made from July 2010 to June 2013, according to data uploaded on the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) website.

LGUs altogether received the second largest allotment of PDAF monies, after the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the top PDAF implementer, which got P30.7 billion of pork projects in the last three years.

In third place are government hospitals, which got P2.6 billion to provide medical assistance to indigent patients.

Davao City Rep. Isidro T. Ungab, who is also chairperson of the House Committee on Appropriations, says the proposals to revise the PDAF system came out of a two-day discussion among lawmakers.

According to Ungab, the lawmakers reached a consensus on the need to achieve three things: address the public outcry to abolish PDAF; limit the “discretion” of legislators during the budget authorization phase; and fill up the vacuum once PDAF is removed as a lump-sum item.

Under the “new mechanism,” Ungab says LGUs and more than a dozen agencies would no longer be allowed to carry out PDAF projects, in light of the irregularities that the Commission on Audit (COA) had uncovered in its special audit on congressional allocations from 2007 to 2009.

Among its many discoveries, COA had found that P1.29 billion in pork funds disbursed to least 13 LGUs did not comply with the rules and regulations of Republic Act No. 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act. The amount includes transactions worth P234.21 million of pork funds assigned to the LGUs audited that were also not documented.

COA, moreover, established that pork monies had been used for the regular operations of LGUs and the offices of congressional districts. Various organizations, associations, and individuals also received funds even though they were not covered in the menu of pork projects enrolled in the General Appropriations Act (GAA).

In its regular audit reports on LGUs in recent years, COA had uncovered the same findings on the misuse of PDAF. Projects transferred to nongovernment organizations that were not documented and liquidated also formed part of COA’s findings.

Just as bad, a PCIJ review of PDAF releases made from July 2010 to June 2013 showed that about P43.54 million of the senators’ pork, and P1.1 billion of the congressmen’s, had also been disbursed directly to some barangays.

The amounts included funding for the infrastructure projects of then Senators Francis ‘Kiko’ N. Pangilinan and Juan Miguel ‘Migz’ F. Zubiri, incumbent Senators Antonio ‘Sonny’ F. Trillanes IV, Vicente ‘Tito’ C. Sotto III, Teofisto ‘TG’ L. Guingona III, Juan Ponce Enrile, Pilar Juliana ‘Pia’ S. Cayetano, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ R. Marcos Jr., and Lorna Regina ‘Loren’ B. Legarda, along with various projects of at least 111 representatives.

In the 2013 GAA menu of pork projects, LGUs are listed among the implementing agencies of health, education, livelihood, social services, and infrastructure projects. But COA’s special audit reveals that some funds lodged under barangays were not used either because the projects were not needed, or the barangays lacked technical capability to implement them. The result: a bounty of deficient infrastructure projects.

No less than Austere A. Panadero, undersecretary for local government of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), says that PDAF could have been put to better use. Lawmakers, he says, could refer to at least three relevant documents to discern which projects to submit for pork funding.

The first, he says, is the Annual Investment Plan (AIP) that specifies an LGU’s programs, projects, and activities for the year. It is approved by the LGU’s local development council and submitted to the appropriate regional office of the DBM by end of January every year. The AIP is required for the release of the Local Development Fund (LDF), which is 20 percent of an LGU’s internal revenue allotment or IRA.

Panadero says lawmakers may now also use the Local Poverty Reduction Action Plan (LPRAP) to find out the needs of poor constituencies and marginalized sectors that an LGU should prioritize. The LPRAP lists programs and projects drawn from discussions among LGU officials, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders.

Every lawmaker, Panadero says, should have a representative in the local development council to keep the legislator informed on the issues and needs of communities within his or her district.

The DILG official also points out that the GAA itself could serve as a reference for lawmakers keen about selecting the most relevant projects.

The GAA exhorts lawmakers to give preference to projects located in fourth- to sixth-class municipalities or to indigents identified under the National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

These provisions, however good on paper, have not always been followed and Panadero admits that the setup may seem somewhat ideal.

PCIJ’s research on PDAF last year showed that the pork funds of some lawmakers had actually benefited their bailiwicks that are not even fourth- to sixth-class towns.

Yet still, Panadero points to an experience in Bohol as proof that pork and other public funds could be put to better use.

Bohol, he says, was considered a model on the use of PDAF during the term of the late governor Erico Aumentado. At the time, LGUs as well as lawmakers were assigned projects to support using the province’s development plan as guide. The result, Panadero says, was a systematic road network that helped boost tourism in the province.

Panadero says that the reality of politics has hindered good practices. At day’s end, he says, the pork barrel would work only if congressmen, governors, and mayors can set aside their differences and unite for the public good. — PCIJ, October 2013