The vaccine against fund conversion

Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was first published in Interaksyon.com on September 21, 2011.

 

Complainant received immediate lacerations of credibility – Jimmy Breslin

Taking control away from people who would otherwise misspend appropriations meant for the hiring of personnel for unfilled positions is a great idea. That’s what President Aquino thought when he created the Miscellaneous Personnel and Benefit Fund (MPBF) for the proposed 2012 national budget. But some people think otherwise. They say that transferring to the budget secretary control over unused funds for the hiring of personnel violates the constitution.

Speaking for the Supreme Court, Midas Marquez said the MPBF raises questions on “the separation of powers, fiscal autonomy, and non-reduction of the judiciary’s budget from the previous year.”

The Constitutional Fiscal Autonomy Group comprising the Judiciary and the Constitutional Commissions added,

“While it may be true that in filling up vacant positions, the appropriate funds required therefore may be sourced from the MPBF, the consequent scenario, however, is that the agency would still have to go through the rigors of requesting the funds from DBM with all necessary supporting documents and waiting for the release thereof.

“Moreover, we need the funds in the exigencies of carrying out our respective constitutional task. There is, thus, no gainsaying that this is an infringement of the fiscal autonomy granted to the CFAG, which the Constitution has guaranteed and is clearly a breach of its flexibility in fund utilization of approved appropriations and in the use of savings.”

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said “the power of allocating funds belongs to this Congress and I don’t think it is correct for the executive to impound these funds in violation of the Constitution.”

Rep. Edcel Lagman reiterated that the “impoundment of the funds for unfilled positions, which were previously appropriated in the separate budgets of co-equal bodies and Constitutional Commissions enjoying fiscal autonomy, violates the Constitution.”

Those arguments will stand in any court of law. But they will fall in the court of public opinion because people are tired of officials drawing on funds intended for other uses to pay for bonuses, perks, retirement pabaons, and other self-serving expenses.  People are also sick of the opacity that comes with fund conversions.

In the words of Rep. Neptali Gonzalez, “what’s wrong with advocating transparency? Kasi mahirap naman ‘yan kung kukunin mo (ang budget) pero wala ka naman palang interes na punuan ng mga tao yung mga kinikuha mong positions na may pondo na at gagamitin for bonuses. Inuubusan mo lahat, wala kang ibinabalik sa national coffers tapos next year na naman hihingi ka na naman ng same amount, hindi mo na naman gagastusin. Aba, sobra naman na ‘yan, panlalamang na yan at panloloko na sa tao.”

The MPBF addresses the concerns of the public over wasteful and capricious spending. It centralizes accountability. The buck stops with the budget secretary. He alone will be held responsible for every centavo of the P23.4 billion reserved for filling 100,000 vacant government positions. And that will force him to be careful about not throwing away any of it.

And so it’s common sense versus the rule of law. On the one hand is the practical necessity for a vaccine against fund conversion, on the other are principles enshrined in our constitution. But if Congress, the Judiciary, and the Constitutional Commissions open their books for public scrutiny, if they present budget requests that include only those positions they can fill within the budget year, then there would be no need for the MPBF. And there won’t be a constitutional crisis.

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