Senate makes Judiciary sweat for proposed budget
MANILA - The legal controversy over the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) was raised during deliberations for the judiciary's budget at the Senate.
Senate President Franklin Drilon posed some questions to Supreme Court Associate Justices Diosdado Peralta and Marvic Leonen about the scope and coverage of the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the PDAF issued by the high court yesterday.
Drilon, together with Senate Finance Committee Chair Francis Escudero, asked the justices for guidance on their rulings on whether the remaining PDAF that was already released by Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to some senators but remains unused are covered by the TRO.
The second tranche of PDAF amounting to P100 million per senator, or half of the total allocations for senators, have not yet been released and is believed to be the subject of the TRO.
"Anong mangyayari ngayon sa mga proyektong nasimulan na?" Drilon asked.
Escudero also asked, "Yung pondo na narelease na sa mga ospital, pwede pa ba gastusin yun? Yung mga scholarship na naibigay na, pwede pa bang i-release ng Commission on Higher Education? These are practical questions."
Drilon added: "As we talk now, may nakapila na mga pasyente sa National Kidney Institute, at nagpapagamot galing sa pondo ng PDAF. In my case, 1,200 patients a day. Pwede pa ba ito o hindi? Ano po ang sagot dito? Yung mga relief goods para sa Zamboanga, nasa DSWD na yan, ano ang gagawin namin dito?"
But the Justices present at the hearing refused to answer the legislators' query. "If there Is any question, it is best that motions are filed in court. We speak as a body. I hope you understand our constitutional boundaries," Leonen said before the panel of senators.
Drilon also focused on the issue of the constitutionality of the PDAF. While he said that he will fully abide by the decisions and sound discretion of the High Court regarding this matter, the Senate President was able to elicit a more definitive reply from Justice Peralta.
Drilon asked Peralta about the implications of the court decision granting a TRO on PDAF. "In effect, you're saying that on a temporary basis, there is prima facie evidence that PDAF is unconstitutional," he said.
Peralta answered: "The TRO speaks for itself. On its preliminary basis, it's correct, but whether it's really unconstitutional or not, it will be determined by the body later."
Peralta said it may take some time for the Supreme Court to decide on the matter since there will be 14 justices who will compose their opinions on the matter, not including the legal procedural matters that are necessary to facilitate due process at the onset of the oral argument on October 8.
Drilon said money intended for public services are now seemingly being taken hostage by the Supreme Court ruling.
"Decide on this as soon as possible," he said. "If you do not decide by December 31, and the TRO is in effect, you have impounded the budget which only the President can do."
"We have the power over judicial review under our Constitution," answered Leonen. "The 14 justices are all aware of this (impounding of the budget)."
Drilon also asked whether the 2014 PDAF, which the Senate is now deliberating, would be affected if the the SC eventually decides that pork barrel is unconstitutional.
"If you declare PDAF unconstitutional, is the PDAF of 2014 still valid?" Drilon asked.
Peralta replied: "We will come to that, your honor."
"Come on, Mr. Justice! I cannot accept that PDAF is unconstitutional in 2013, and then its constitutional in 2014," the senator answered.
At the latter part of the hearing, Drilon discussed the request of the SC to increase their budget to about P4 billion, with P1.4 billion going to personnel services and P2.5 billion to the high court's maintenance operating expenses.
Drilon asked if they can re-align part of the P25 billion PDAF for 2014 to the increase being asked by the court.
"We cannot increase, we have to realign. Can we realign it out of PDAF?," he said.
"We cannot answer that theoretical and speculative..." Leonen said but was cut off immediately by Drilon.
"No! You're asking for an addition, for our guidance, can we realign PDAF to your personnel services?" the Senate president said.
Leonen replied: "I'm sure there are many other ways. I believe the good senators know where, as far as we are concerned we cannot advise the Senate, all we can do is propose."
Drilon also asked Leonen if the President can exercise his authority to realign the PDAF.
Leonen answered: "There is a way to ask question from the court and that is through your lawyers."
Escudero clarified that they are not questioning the TRO issued by the justices but they merely posing practical questions on the ruling that now has some effects in the delivery of basic services as well as to the powers of the president to fund basic social services.
"These are valid concerns. Ang tanong ngayon ay ano na ang gagawin ng mga implementing agencies," he said.
"They answered in accordance with how they think it should be answered. Dalawa nga lang naman sila at hindi nila nirerepresenta ang buong korte."
Escudero said the upper chamber, particularly Senate President Drilon, is just concerned that certain PDAF allocations could be devoted to other areas where funding is needed if only the Supreme Court will decide on the matter the soonest possible.
"Nanghihinayang lang si Senator Drilon sa fiscal space,": he said.
The Senate Finance Committee, in the end, approved for the plenary session, the P18 billion proposed budget of the judiciary.