Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Senators oppose government calamity plan

MANILA, Philippines - Senators expressed yesterday strong opposition to Malacañang’s decision to declare the whole country under a state of calamity and even extending it to a year, saying it might lead to abuses on the part of the executive branch and misuse of funds.

President Arroyo last week issued Proclamation 1898 placing the entire country under a state of calamity.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Senators Benigno Aquino III, Manuel Villar Jr., Manuel Roxas II, Francis Escudero, Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Alan Peter Cayetano all warned against relaxed rules in the disbursement of funds during a state of calamity, which Malacañang and local government units might abuse.

The senators questioned why the entire nation was placed under a state of calamity when not all areas were affected by tropical storm “Ondoy” and typhoon “Pepeng.”

They said this would give local government units (LGUs) power to spend their calamity funds for other purposes. With the general elections approaching, the funds could be misused, the senators said.

They argued that the state of calamity should only be for a few months since prolonging it would give wrong signals to the international community and create a bad image for the country before prospective investors.

Aquino said the move was like “closing the barn door after the horses left” since government should have prepared for disasters.

He said rules in the disbursement and utilization of funds were more relaxed under a state of calamity because of the urgency for their use. “When you declare that is going to be for a year, there might be calls for augmentation as far as those funds depleted are concerned. (The question is) will all the funds really address the calamity or will be used for something else because the rules have been relaxed?” Aquino said.

Villar, for his part, said the task of rebuilding was needed to help typhoon victims to truly recover from the tragedy but this would not merit too drastic actions and sweeping calls from the government.

More bad than good

The Makati Business Club, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Employers Confederation of the Philippines and the Federation of Philippine Industries, among other business groups, also expressed alarm about the planned extension of the state of calamity status.

They said it could create more problems for the country such as job losses and supply shortage. Other business groups even fear that it may lead to a state of emergency and the exercise of police powers.

“It is understandable that we have to prioritize the needs of the flood victims but we have to take into account the repercussions of our actions to other sectors. In this case, if the business sector will be affected, it will have a chain reaction if our economy will slow down because of it,” Villar said.

He said there is a need to put a semblance of normalcy to the people’s lives as soon as possible.

“This early, the concerned government departments and agencies should already put in place mechanisms to ensure the stable supply of food until next year. At the same time, help should be extended to farmers who suffered losses due to the typhoons,” he said.

Roxas, for his part, said placing the whole country under state of calamity was a knee jerk and overreaction. “This was not carefully thought out. It was very clear that in Mindanao, there were no rains,” he said.

He agreed with Escudero and Santiago that funds for projects could be disbursed without bidding and checks and balances since the laws on procurement might be sidestepped.

“Price control should only be in areas affected be calamities,” Roxas said, adding that the extra powers and leeway for government under a state of calamity could be used for “last two minutes” or midnight deals and the coming elections.

Santiago, on the other hand, said that the prolonged declaration of state of calamity could be counterproductive in the long run since it would cause the release of the calamity funds of all the local government units.

She said the state of calamity could be limited to three months and make people return to normalcy the soonest time possible.

No need for supplemental budget

Santiago also objected to the passage of a P10-billion supplemental budget for the victims of Ondoy because the executive branch has more than enough funds to provide for them.

“We don’t need a supplemental budget. Last year, when we were discussing the budget for 2009, Congress allocated appropriations even beyond the amounts that were sought by Malacañang for certain government offices. If we take back all those amounts that were added to the budget of certain government departments, we will be able to source the much-needed funds for our rehabilitation efforts,” Santiago said.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri also said they were no longer sure if Congress could pass the supplemental budget before the break next week.

“It’s (joint resolution) being worked out by the House (of Representatives). It must emanate from the House. I don’t know if they have approved it,” Enrile said.

Asked about the chances of the budget being approved, Enrile said: “Malabo na ngayon (It’s a long shot).”

He said he could not remember if there was an agreement to have the budget passed before the congressional recess and would just wait for the advice of Sen. Angara, chairman of the Senate finance committee, regarding the matter.

Zubiri voiced the same concern but said a special session could be called if the budget was really needed.

But Santiago said it would be easy to augment the calamity funds simply by asking the President to exercise her power to transfer appropriations.

“I do not want a prolonged state of calamity, because in the same way that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, calamity tends to corrupt. The longer the declaration of a state of calamity, the longer the corruption,” Santiago said.

However, Enrile said that placing the country under a state of calamity was okay to protect the public during times of crises.

He argued that a state of calamity was acceptable because there is a need to control the rise of prices, especially prime commodities, during such time.

“This is not the first time that that is done. It has been done post-Marcos many times. It has been done during the Marcos years and it was done also even before the Marcos years,” Enrile said, adding that it can be declared beyond the term of the President.

Palace: No excessive use of power

But Malacañang assured that there will be no excessive use of state powers for the duration of the nationwide state of calamity even if the Philippine National Police (PNP) has been mobilized to enforce price controls amid pockets of violence from some businesses defying orders not to increase prices of basic goods.

The Palace also appealed to critics to stop blaming the government for the destruction brought about by the two typhoons.

Deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez said that while different parts of the country, including Metro Manila, are facing numerous crises--health, garbage, and education-- the government will not go overboard in exercising its powers while the declaration of the state of calamity is in effect.

He said the main tools of the authorities, particularly local government units, in addressing the problems remain to be the use of their emergency funds and enforcement of price ceilings, both triggered once a state of calamity is declared.

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Raul Gonzalez earlier said that under general welfare provisions of the Constitution, the state can take over vital installations during emergencies, and the current calamity can also be considered a national emergency.

He, however, said that the situation, while serious, does not warrant the exercise of extraordinary powers of the government.

“Those (violent incidents and threats) are focused on certain persons, groups of people with a certain interest so we don’t see any widespread disorder in the streets. We are focused on rebuilding communities as of the moment,” he said.

Mrs. Arroyo also ordered that lands near the permanent relocation sites for families displaced by the calamity be developed for agri-business to sustain the new communities.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, for his part, said it’s not definite yet if the government could prolong the declaration of a state of calamity in the entire country for one year.

“That’s speculative,” he said.

Admin lawmakers lashed at MBC

Coming to the defense of the President, administration lawmakers appealed to the Makati Business Club (MBC), a perpetual critic of President Arroyo, to be humane enough and understand the sorry plight of victims who were hit by the typhoons.

“This is an extraordinary time and extraordinary steps are required to be taken. I think the one-year period (for state of calamity) is necessary to impress upon the people and businesses about the depth of the situation and the need to do something about it,” Isabela Rep. Giorgidi Aggabao said.

The MBC is a group of businessmen based in the financial district of Makati City. Its members are mostly employers of big companies in the Philippines, who employ thousands that generate jobs locally.

Rep. Marcelino Teodoro of Marikina, however, lashed out at MBC, saying the group should set aside its “self-serving financial goals” and realize that the people are rebuilding their lives after the two typhoons.

“They should be more contributive to the restoration of devastated areas than to be anarchic moguls,” he said, seeing the government focus on slowly bringing things back to normal in the country.

Lanao del Norte Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo, on the other hand, said the MBC should not paint a grim picture of the government’s plan to extend the state of calamity for a year. It would be better for them if they could come up with a counter-proposal, he suggested.

“The MBC should first check with the administration and recommend constructively. For example, we have seen how President Arroyo handles crises, (and it’s) definitely not dictatorial. To them, the President is always wrong or bad, and has done nothing right. Is MBC gearing up to be a political party?” he said.

One of the perceived effects of the planned extension of the declaration of a state of calamity would be price controls of goods, business groups like MBC fears. If carried out, it said the plan would spawn more problems like job losses and supply shortage.

Dimaporo views the threat of an extended price control as something “persuasive.”

“The price control will most likely be monitoring and persuasion, and can be in phases of six months. Weather these days is unpredictable. And we can’t assume that we alone can solve climate change. The MBC should not be a political opposition, hitting the President at every corner and creating situations to hit her,” he said.

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