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Estrada faces test on pork barrel funds

MANILA, June 3 Kyodo

The din of election rhetoric has died down but the Philippines is headed for another noisy debate on the proposed scrapping of the multibillion peso pork barrel funds allocated to lawmakers for their pet projects.

The issue is emerging as the first test for the incoming administration of Philippine President-elect Joseph Estrada, who will take over from President Fidel Ramos on June 30.

Recent studies by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) showed that each congress member gets some 62.5 million pesos a year in such funds.

According to Earl Parreno, author of one of the studies on the pork barrel system in the Philippines published in the book "Pork and other Perks," each congress member is given 12.5 million pesos every year in countrywide development funds to finance his pet infrastructure projects, to buy equipment and materials, and other activities proposed by the lawmakers.

In 1997 alone, he said, the lawmakers were given 30 million pesos each from the Public Works Fund, 4.5 million pesos from the school building fund, and 500,000 pesos from the agriculture department's budget for the construction of farm-to-market roads.

"In addition, each lawmaker has at least 15 million pesos in congressional initiative allocations, budget items incorporated in allocations for various agencies and on which the legislators have the power to direct how, where and when these particular appropriations are disbursed," he said.

"The amounts skimmed off are massive," he said. "For ghost deliveries where contracts for materials are faked, the standard congressman's take is 60%. For books, magazines and medicine, 40 to 50%, more if the medicine is expired or soon to be expired. For infrastructure construction, the congressman's take ranges from 12 to 15%, with a few congressmen demanding as much as 20%."

No wonder the pork barrel funds have become a powerful magnet to politicians to run for public office. Studies have shown that many politicians use the funds to enrich themselves and widen their electoral base.

Estrada has vowed to abolish the pork barrel funds.

"(Estrada) is picking a fight on what has traditionally been the lifeblood and source of political power of members of Congress," said Amando Doronila, a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In doing so, Doronila said, Estrada "is courting political suicide or at least planting the deadly seeds that could unravel the coalition of 'national unity' forged between him and the Lakas majority in the House."

A debate on the issue is now raging, with the likelihood that the pork barrel system will be retained but modified to include stringent safeguards against wanton abuse.

Estrada says the system breeds corruption in government, specially among the lawmakers and officials in various government agencies.

Philippine Finance Secretary Salvador Enriquez said 45% of the pork barrel funds is lost to corruption, principally in the form of kickbacks.

Estrada's 10-point action program -- which he plans to implement during the first 100 days of his presidency -- includes a move to "immediately terminate" all unnecessary government expenses, including foreign travel and the large-scale wastage of public funds.

"These funds, once freed from the constraints of political patronage, may now be channeled directly toward creating social safety net programs, building infrastructure, and in general reducing the budget deficit," Estrada said.

Estrada said he plans to divert the hefty funds used to build waiting sheds, basketball courts, street decorations and other unnecessary concrete structures into agriculture production to boost food security -- the cornerstone of his economic and poverty-alleviation program.

Estrada has declared war on poverty, which continues to grip more than 30% of the country's more than 70 million people. Specifically, he says he wants to modernize agriculture and improve the lot of the poor farmers by constructing additional irrigation facilities and infrastructure projects like farm-to-market roads.

"If Estrada does what he says he will do with the pork barrel, he will spark a revolution of sorts in our political culture," said political analyst Alex Magno, who writes for the Manila Standard.

Magno said the issue will be a test of political will for Estrada.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Jun 8, 1998
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