Rewarding inefficiency | Inquirer Opinion

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At a recent Senate hearing on the proposed 2023 budget of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III was aghast to find a P1.084-billion allocation to “assess and evaluate” the activities of the controversial National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac).

This year, P400 million was given for the same task, which Pimentel noted did not even involve giving financial aid to or identifying barangays cleared of communist insurgency. It was “merely for monitoring” the task force’s activities.

“This really shocked me,” Pimentel said.

As it should. After all, the NTF-Elcac, which was involved in the Red-tagging of militants and government critics under the Duterte administration, faces a lot of issues questioning its mandate and capacity to do it.

When the House appropriations committee slashed to P5 billion the task force’s 2023 budget of P10 billion as allocated by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), Ako Bicol Rep. and committee chair Elizaldy Co said it was because the NTF-Elcac was found to have been inefficient in the implementation of its anti-insurgency projects. The Commission on Audit meanwhile called out the task force for its “low absorptive capacity.”

Co noted: “The situation is even worse in 2022. Based on reports received by my office, only 2 percent of NTF-Elcac’s 2022 projects have been completed or ongoing. A whopping 98 percent of the projects are still under the pre-procurement or procurement stage, and it’s already December.”

Earlier, in a Senate hearing in October, senators questioned the task force’s P10-billion proposed budget for 2023 because it did not disclose how this amount would be used.

Said Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate finance committee: “That’s pork barrel based on the definition of the Supreme Court because when (Congress) passes the General Appropriations Act, there must already be an identification of projects as much as possible.”

Worse, it turned out that the NTF-Elcac did not submit a report on projects completed in 2021 and 2022, as admitted by DBM officials. Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman told senators that the DBM had asked the NTF-Elcac to submit its accomplishment report, but it has yet to comply.

As Sen. Nancy Binay pointed out, “How would you now justify the additional P10 billion for next year when we do not even know what is going on with its (previous) budget?”

If even the DBM can’t get a report on NTF-Elcac projects, how are other agencies involved in the anti-insurgency campaign supposed to “cover and monitor activities meant to address” the problem, as the DILG’s P1.084 billion budget for the Philippine National Police was supposed to do?

Yet, despite the NTF-Elcac’s many violations—failure to identify intended projects in violation of budget regulations, inefficient implementation of, and failure to submit its accomplishment reports on such projects for the past two years—the House leadership ordered that the budget cut be reinstated.

The order came from no less than Speaker Martin Romualdez and his nephew, Deputy Senior Majority Leader Sandro Marcos, according to Co who, not surprisingly, acquiesced to it after initial misgivings.

“Congress recognizes the important role the NTF-Elcac plays to help end the country’s decades-long insurgency. Thus, we will convince our Senate counterparts in the bicameral conference committee to restore the agency’s proposed budget,” Co said of the committee’s about-face.

Which prompted a strong objection from House Deputy Minority Leader Rep. France Castro. “The budget of the NTF-Elcac was already deliberated and debated upon by the plenary, and now they will just set it aside? What’s the purpose of the debate and interpellation? Is there no democracy in Congress? Will the plans of those at the top always prevail?”

The House appropriations panel would have been on the right track in pushing the NTF-Elcac to shape up, amid calls for its defunding or abolition after its officers Red-tagged even members of Congress, celebrities, judges, and journalists, among others.

If it could only implement 2 percent of its projects by year-end, it shows these projects are not urgent. The substantial amount to be reinstated could instead be realigned to fund more urgent and more transparent projects, Castro said. The P10-billion NTF-Elcac budget can be used to provide aid to one million families. Pimentel meanwhile noted that while the DILG was given P400 million this year to monitor the NTF-Elcac, agencies like the Philippine Postal Corp. are begging for funds just to sustain their operations.

With the House leadership overturning the decision of its own budget panel, it’s now up to the Senate to correct this questionable allocation, as some of them had done in other instances. That is, unless the Senate itself follows suit, and allows the NTF-Elcac to again get away with its notorious flouting of the law.

As Castro noted, restoring the NTF-Elcac’s budget cut amounts to “rewarding incompetence and Red-tagging.”

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