The Senate has plugged a hole in the 2019 national budget, through which multi-billion-peso Chinese and other foreign-funded projects unilaterally approved by the executive can be paid, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said.
The “block payment” provision in the Senate version of the budget bill distinctly names one project only, the Chinese-offered “Safe Philippines Project”, which will pilot a CCTV-based emergency response system in two metropolitan areas at a cost of P20 billion.
Recto said the “vetting and approval” of the project has all the hallmarks of a behest transaction, “lacking in studies, consultations, validation.”
“We have asked for documents from the lead appraisal authority, the NEDA, and they cannot provide us any,” Recto said.
“Manipis na, minadali pa. Usually the documentation for a project of this size is voluminous. In this case, halos walang maibigay,” he said.
Recto said the alarming trend of the executive bloating the public debt by agreeing to donor-driven loans “must be slowed down, more so if the process lacks transparency.”
“Marami kasing salesmen at ahente ng foreign projects. So instead of asking funds through the appropriations route, uutangin na lang, tapos ang bayad ipapasa sa Kongreso at taxpayers bilang kasama sa debt service na automatically appropriated,” Recto said.
To address this, the Senate has included two provisions in the 2019 national budget it approved Monday. The provisions, which have the effect of law, guide the release of funds for overseas development aid and other foreign-funded activities.
The first provision, under the Unprogrammed Fund section of the national budget states:
“No amount appropriated herein shall be utilized for any project intended for public video surveillance and communication system with suppliers or service providers that are considered as serious risks to national security or interest or are involved in cases regarding information leakage, computer or network hacking, and other forms of cyber espionage, whether in the Philippines or in other countries.”
The second provision enumerates the foreign-assisted projects which may draw from authorized appropriations for fiscal year 2019. The Safe Philippines Project is not among the 13 projects listed.
Recto said P7.42 billion was included in the 2019 national budget for the Safe Philippines Project.
“Ang misteryo dito, July pa lang, may naka-park nang P7 billion. Pero ang supply contract, November na na-approve. They put the cart before the horse,” he said.
Records show that it was only on September 20, 2018 that the DILG, the partner agency, was able to transmit the approved budget cost for the Safe Philippines Project to the Department of Finance.
The Notice of Award was issued on November 16, 2018 to the chosen bidder, China International Telecommunication Construction Corporation (CITCC). And the supply contract was signed three days later.
Recto said he was not opposed to the idea of an ICT-based emergency response system “because the Filipino people need it.”
“What the Filipino people do not need is one whose evaluation and approval was hastily done, lacks transparency, no consultations, no independent appraisal, is a tied loan and a donor-driven expenditure,” he said.