Sound and Fury of President Aquino's SONA

Posted at 07/27/2010 4:55 PM

Counter-SONA speech delivered by Minority Leader Edcel C. Lagman, 27 July 2010 at the House of Representatives

Mr. Speaker and distinguished colleagues:

The Minority in this House has publicly declared that it will not be obstructionist nor will it be obstinate. It has offered the hand of amity and cooperation to the Administration. It would support the Administration’s agenda for sustainable human development and programs to alleviate poverty, protect the marginalized and strengthen the economy.

We in the Minority keenly awaited the State of the Nation Address (SONA) to be informed of concrete and meaningful legislative agenda of President Benigno Aquino III – a shopping list of well-explained proposals from which the Minority could select and prioritize what measures it would adopt and jointly advocate.

The SONA frustrated the expectations of the Minority. Instead of being a blueprint for development and policy direction, the SONA was generally a partisan press release, a complaint sheet, a compendium of motherhood statements and a continuation of campaign rhetoric.

Instead of presenting a roadmap on policies and programs, the SONA was a discourse on “inherited problems” which overwhelm the President and painted an atmosphere of woe with very tentative and deficient solutions.

Yung SONA kahapon ng Pangulo ay bitin, kulang at kapos. Ano naman ang susuportahan ng Minorya kung walang binigkas na maliwanag na programa ang Pangulo? Just like a tele-novela: abangan ang susunod na kabanata. Talagang bitin.

The SONA was bereft of specifics or particulars. His proposals were virtually hanging in the air and most probably, he expected Congress to fill in the blanks. Or was it purposely vague or “safe” so that the people could not hold him accountable for a concrete program once it fails?

I have been cautioned to go slow on the SONA because President Aquino enjoys a tremendously high approval rating. But when the Emperor wears no clothes, can I honestly tell you that his robe is regal and majestic?

Yesterday afternoon the sound and fury emanating from the first SONA of President Aquino reverberated in this august Chamber.

“Sound” from the crafted “sound bites” on alleged misdeeds of the previous administration which the current dispensation considers “excesses” to solely rake up and expose, but not as pitfalls to avoid and hard lessons to learn from.

“Sound” echoing the voices of presidential subalterns who were specifically ordered to find past faults of the agencies they are now heading, for inclusion as inputs in the SONA, which contributions could have been contrived or hastily prepared.

And “sound” from the much-ballyhooed “speech from the heart”, which was indeed more cardiac than cerebral.

“Fury” from the ferocious campaign of perceived vengeance spearheaded by the Presidency whose “prosecutor’s complex” projects the creation of a “Truth Commission” which will only duplicate, if not supersede, the statutory and constitutional mandates of existing government prosecutorial and judicial agencies, aside from becoming a convenient launching pad for conviction by publicity of expected respondents.

“Fury” from the divisive disposition of the Presidency which plants a wedge among our people and leaders, instead of integrating and unifying sectors of society and institutions. The SONA must integrate, not divide, the nation.

“Fury” from misleading accusations and denunciations which defy the facts, violate the truth and trivialize probity.

We do not intend to defend the officials of the previous administration who could ably defend themselves from denunciations and innuendoes. What we are going to do is to clarify the statements of the President to establish the accurate facts and figures; buoy up the people’s faith in government institutions; maintain investors’ confidence and prevent capital flight consequent to an errant presentation engendering doubt and despair.

Now, let me go to the particulars included in the SONA:

1. Mention was made of former functionaries who committed criminal and/or administrative infractions. If officials of the previous administration have violated the law, then their cases must be pursued, filed and submitted to the independent assessment and fair adjudication of the proper prosecutorial and judicial fora. The rule of law, not the role of interference, must be strictly observed and judiciously upheld.

No more similar presidential interventions in the judicial domain like in the Trillanes case; no more affront against a co-equal branch of government like the defiance of the valid appointment of Chief Justice Renato Corona; and no more projected creation of a “Truth Commission” which may suffer from constitutional infirmities like usurping the power of Congress to create and fund offices and commissions and violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

It must be underscored that the intended creation of a “Truth Commission” to investigate allegations of corruption against the former President has no international moorings. Invariably, truth commissions since the mid-1970s have been created “to investigate past history of violations of human rights in a particular country.”

It is also reported that “the international human rights community has advocated truth commissions as an important part of the healing process, and they have been suggested as part of the peace process of virtually every international or communal conflict that has come to an end”.

Truth commissions provide a “forum for victims, their relatives, and sometimes the perpetrators of the crimes to give evidence and testimony of human rights abuses.”

Verily, a truth commission is created to look into human rights violations usually perpetrated under dictatorial regimes which had been successfully supplanted by a democratic government and is instituted as part of the process of closure.

Consequently, it is not established to investigate alleged acts of corruption, the jurisdiction over which is lodged with the existing judicial system. Should a “Truth Commission” be created, it should be consistent with its history, practice and objective which is to hold human rights violators accountable and give justice to the victims and their families.

Since the very first truth commission in Uganda was formed to bring to justice perpetrators of enforced disappearances, President Aquino should be challenged to certify the Anti-Disappearance bill as an administration measure and for the Philippines to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

2. The previous administration has been faulted for incurring a huge deficit of about P196.7 billion from January to June 2010. But impartial economists have unequivocally said that the deficit is manageable so much so that the country’s credit rating has been maintained.

Even the Aquino fiscal managers are reported to have increased the 2010 deficit target of P233.44 billion, or 2.8% of GDP to P293.2 billion or an increase of almost P60 billion to pump prime the economy, as what the previous administration did.

As a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), both the actual fiscal deficit and the original 2010 projected deficit are lower than the previous deficits in relation to the GDP which was 5.13% in 1986, 3.45% in 1990, 3.75% in 1999, 4.0% in 2000, 4.05% in 2001, 5.32% in 2002, 4.63% in 2003 and 3.84% in 2004.

Not having a fiscal deficit or attaining a reduced deficit is not sacrosanct. Even the more advanced and progressive nations have deficits of their own at varying high levels.

The prioritization of public expenditures and pump priming programs should be the economic mantra, instead of aspiring to have no or reduced deficit which results in an anemic or regressive growth.

3. As if to seek pity, the President said that what remains of the P1.540 trillion 2010 national budget is only P100 billion or 6.5% of the total annual appropriations.

The President is grossly misinformed, to say the least. According to the Bureau of the Treasury, the total cash disbursement or national government expenditures as of 30 June 2010 amounted to 788 billion 833 million pesos. In other words, 751 billion 767 million pesos or 48.78% of the budget remains unspent.

The problem in the President’s accounting must have been caused by a lack of understanding of the difference between “allocation” as covered by a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) and actual disbursement to pay accrued or matured obligations.

This is also compounded by failing to appreciate the import of the three general items of expenditures on personal services, maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) and capital outlay vis-à-vis release of funds.

In the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, personal services amount to 493 billion 034 million 210 thousand pesos; MOOE totals 824 billion 669 million 228 thousand pesos, which expenditure item includes interest payment, Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) and other MOOE; and capital outlay amounts to 222 billion 896 million 562 thousand pesos or a total budget of 1 trillion 540 billion 600 million pesos.

Under the National Budget Circular 523, 100% of personal services for filled items and 75% of the MOOE and capital outlay are authorized to be released at the start of the fiscal year.

Accordingly, in Fiscal Year 2010, 356 billion 168 million 327 thousand pesos or 72.245% of the personal services had been released, while 402 billion 329 million 083 thousand pesos or 48.79% of the MOOE and 117 billion 740 million 884 thousand pesos or 52.82% of the capital outlay had been released or a grand total of 876 billion 238 million 294 thousand pesos had been released as of 31 May 2010. Thus leaving an unreleased balance of 664 billion 361 million 706 thousand pesos.

The lament of President Aquino that the remaining appropriation is only P100 billion is inaccurate and misleading because he must have been looking only at the capital outlay where the exact balance as of 31 May 2010 is 105 billion 155 million 678 thousand pesos or 47.18% of the total appropriation.

In fact, instead of releasing 75% of the MOOE, only 48.79% had been released leaving a balance of 51.21% or 422 billion 340 million 145 thousand pesos and only 52.82% of the capital outlay, thus leaving a balance of 47.18%. Perforce, President Aquino has to go back to the drawing board or consult his advisers to get the accurate figures.

Consequently, it is best to reiterate that 100% of the personal services for filled positions and 75% of the MOOE are authorized to be released at the start of the fiscal year to the agencies concerned to assure the prompt payment of the salaries of government personnel and the unimpeded operations of the government.

The front-loaded appropriations already amount to 876 billion 238 million 294 thousand pesos or 56.88% of the national budget and the total combined unreleased balance of about 664 billion 361 million 706 thousand pesos or 43.12% of the budget is for disposition of the new administration.

4. The releases for a district in Pampanga is only a small percentage of the Calamity Fund and the allocation is barely disbursed as the projects are still in the process of implementation.

The comparison with Pangasinan which reportedly got only P5 million from the Calamity Fund is obviously misleading as other rehabilitation projects in Pangasinan were adequately funded from other budgetary sources like the outlay for public works.

These misleading statements are aggravated by a lack of understanding of the utilization of the Calamity Fund. The President is of the impression that the fund is limited to current year calamities. It is not. It also covers rehabilitation projects necessitated by prior years’ calamities and pre-calamity preparations. The range covers past, present, and future calamities pursuant to the General Appropriations Act.

5. The President’s tirade against NAPOCOR is apparently misplaced. The P200 billion debt of NAPOCOR which was assumed by the National Government did not represent losses when it sold electricity at a loss to subsidize consumers. This loan assumption is mandated by Section 32 of the EPIRA Law.

6. With respect to the President’s exposé on alleged anomalous fund utilization of the MWSS, I am informed that the salary adjustments also accrued in favor of the rank and file personnel and the rates are in compliance with Collective Bargaining Agreements way back to the 1950s and all bonuses have legal basis like the Salary Standardization III.

7. The revelation of the President on reported excess importation of rice by the National Food Authority (NFA) and the alleged subsequent spoilage of the excess is a premature denunciation because the NFA, as earlier admitted today by NFA officials, has not even started the requisite audit and investigation.

The import of the President’s SONA can also be assessed or judged by what it failed to say:

1. There is no mention on how the new Administration will pursue and achieve sustainable human development and how it would improve and enhance the principal human development indicators like health, education, food security, employment, mass housing and the environment.

2. No mention was made about the incontrovertible linkage between population and sustainable human development, which significant nexus is adequately addressed in the Reproductive Health bill.

3. The agrarian reform program was completely forgotten despite having been the centerpiece program of the late President Corazon Aquino. The agricultural sector being a major market for consumer goods and agricultural inputs produced by the industrial sector, the SONA should have stressed the imperative of agricultural development and agrarian reform in sustained industrial growth and, concomitantly, sustained employment generation.

4. There was also a default on the promotion of human rights and protection of civil liberties, except a passing mention of six extrajudicial killings very early in the Aquino administration which are claimed to being addressed.

5. Likewise, there was no mention of the Aquino administration’s policy on enhancing the condition of the workingman, here and abroad, or his labor agenda.

6. The agenda on climate change mitigation and adaptation was also completely overlooked even as climate change principally affects women, children and the disadvantaged sectors.

7. The Freedom of Information bill, which should be revisited, debated, refined and amended, is nowhere to be found in the SONA.

8. There is no debt service reduction policy and how the administration will address the issue on fraudulent loans.

9. Nothing was disclosed on the development of Mindanao and other chronically depressed areas.

10. The SONA was likewise silent on the new administration’s thrust on foreign relations in the context of a global community.

The initiation of national policies generally belongs to the administration or the Majority. But the Minority is ready to discharge this role if the administration continues to default on this obligation.

There is much to be desired in the President’s actualization of his proposed legislative agenda as represented by his announced priority bills.

(a) With respect to the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, there are no parameters and requisite exceptions. We cannot totally enjoin the filing and passing of bills without specified sources of funding because there are certain measures which come to fore that need immediate enactment with the funding source from savings, available funds and subsequent appropriations provided for in the GAA.

(b) In the review of fiscal incentives, the President failed to identify which incentives must remain and which incentives should be foreclosed.

(c) There has been no mention whatsoever of what should be amended in the procurement law.

(d) The President’s endorsement of an Ant-Trust Law remains nebulous except for a sweeping statement against monopolies and cartels.

(e) There are a number of National Land Use bills introduced in past Congresses. Which bill does the President favor?

(f) While there is a need to update the National Defense Act, again the President failed to disclose what amendments are to be effected.

(g) How will the Witness Protection Program be strengthened, the President again failed to specify.

(h) The Whistle Blower’s bill is not a major legislation but can be prioritized with further inputs from the President.

With all of the inordinate inaccuracies in the facts and figures cited to in the SONA, it is obvious that the President was fed wrong information by assistants and some members of the Cabinet. Nakuryente ang Presidente despite the fact that his SONA was not electrifying. Not realizing that he was given wrong data, false statistics and flawed analyses, he still appealed to Congress that these errant appointees should breeze through the Commission on Appointments. This is shockingly aggravating.

Despite the generally gaping void of the SONA, we appreciate the proffered adoption and continuation of the following programs of the previous administration:

1. Public-private partnerships on capital expenditure projects with the reservation that the simplistic understanding of the President that “nang hindi gugugol ang estado kahit na po piso” or cost-free to the government, fails to realize that investors would have to recoup their investments and make profits so much so that the people will ultimately bear the burden of the project cost. Moreover, the President has to disclose who these businessmen with hearts of gold are who have made such selfless proposals to him.

2. The program on conditional cash transfer with possible increased funding support.

3. The national household index project being undertaken by the DSWD to accurately document poor families in order to prioritize and rationalize financial assistance

4. Universal coverage under the Philhealth social insurance whose benefits could be maximized if those who could afford pay the small annual premium of only P1,200.00 are self-enrolled and if physicians can perform effective but less expensive medical procedures.

On the whole, President Aquino’s first State of the Nation Address was both defective in what it said and deficient in what it failed to say. Its “sound” has now vanished and its “fury” dissipated.

The Minority criticizes the SONA as a way of telling the President to validate the information given to him by his subalterns and to use the SONA as an instrument to advocate reform and development, and not as a weapon to vilify and destroy.