By Chit Estella
May 24, 2008
IF numbers represented money, wouldn’t more people be interested in them?
The innocuously titled book, “Your Guidebook to Effective and Transparent National Budget Legislation: Philippine Setting,” shows how true this can be. The product of 15 years of observation and research, the book is the work of former accountants and managers who banded themselves to form the Center for National Budget Legislation.
It is published by J.A. Ranola Consultancy.
It is aimed primarily at fledgling legislators and their staff who want a crash course in the intricacies of the budgetary process, as well as other government executives, nongovernment watchdog groups and even media who want to understand a little-known but highly important process in the bureaucracy.
Going through the chapters, one realizes that it is a book every Filipino interested in good governance must have. For it is not just the national budget that is taken up here: The functions of the different branches of government and basic questions in economics and finance are given a good discussion as well.
As soon as the discussion begins, the reader is also made aware that the guidebook is more than just what it says it is. More than just being a neutral source of information, its authors are advocates of good government and anti-corruption. And that is what the book is really all about.
Many Filipinos know about Congress’s much-vaunted power over the purse. Legislators themselves are not averse to reminding executive officials about this. Out of pique, legislators have been heard to declare that a budget of only P1 will be given to an agency whose head does not show up in a hearing. This is why executive officials never absent themselves from meetings called by the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate’s Finance Committee. The same officials might try to evade inquiries by the Blue Ribbon Committee—a body that likes to describe itself as powerful—but they will never do so to the wielders of true clout, the budget and finance committees.
But is it a power that is correctly and justly used? The book answers this by raising questions in the approved budgets studied from fiscal years 2002 to 2007 and the proposed appropriations bill for 2008.
Why, for example, were the budgets approved by Congress in fiscal years 2003 and 2005 bigger than those submitted by Malacanang? In 2003, the proposed national budget for the National Expenditure Program of P605.2 billion was increased to P609.6 billion. In 2005, the proposed NEP of P446 billion was jacked up to P597 billion, or an increase of P152 billion.
The book asks if the increases were a violation of the Constitution which states: “Congress may not increase the appropriations recommended by the President for the operation of the Government as specified in the budget. The form, content and manner of preparation of the budget shall be prescribed by law.”
In a section quaintly named “Dagdag-Bawas,” the authors point to the hefty increases in the budgets of some agencies like the Department of Public Works and Highways. In the 1997 budget, the DPWH received from Congress a “dagdag” of P5.9 billion. From Malacanang’s proposed budget of P65.2 billion for the agency, the appropriation approved by legislators amounted to P71.2 billion.
On the other hand, Congress apparently had no problem slashing the Department of Social Work and Development’s budget from the proposed P4 billion to P3.5 billion, or a reduction of P453 million.
Why was the Agrarian Reform Fund given allocations for personal services that were often higher than those given to the Department of Agrarian Reform even though the former does not even have a plantilla? The allocations usually amounted to more than P1 billion. And in a puzzling case of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, such budgets for the ARF’s personal services were present in the years 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007 but not in the years 2004, 2005 and 2008. The guidebook asks: What was the fund really intended for and where was it used?
And then there is the Unprogrammed Fund. The fund, which refers to appropriations that are not supported by corresponding resources, should be used only when government revenues exceed targets. Yet, the guidebook says, releases have been made in the past even before surplus revenues were declared. From P61.1 billion in 2007, the Unprogrammed Fund in the proposed national budget for 2008 has ballooned to P114.4 billion, or an 87 percent increase over the past year. Where is so much money going and where will it come from?
Beyond exposing possible wrongdoing in government, the guidebook’s real value lies in empowering readers to ask questions. But this they can only do if they know the intricacies of the budgetary process, the loopholes and the mysteries.
It is also a book that can benefit from a less polite title such as, “How Government Officials Are Robbing You Blind.”