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From P28 billion, Senate panel cuts proposed NTF-ELCAC budget to P4 billion

The Senate Finance Committee has slashed the Executive Department’s P28-billion proposed 2022 budget for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) to P4 billion, realigning the rest to health-related programs.

This was disclosed by Senate Finance Committee chairman Sonny Angara on Tuesday at a media briefing where he also bared that the panel has realigned over P100 billion to the country’s health programs, including the funding of the COVID-19 response.

“Actually naging source namin 'yun ng funds. Alam mo naman sa budget, kapag nagdadagdag ka sa isang agency, you have to remove from other agencies. So nabawasan yung NTF-ELCAC,” he said.

(Actually, it was one of the sources of the [realigned] funds. If you add a budget to an agency, you have to remove from other agencies. So we have to decrease the budget of NTF-ELCAC.)

“I think there was P28 billion for NTF-ELCAC and now it's down to P4 billion,” he added.

Angara said the senators are “very insistent” on the realignment of funds.

“Nalalakihan sila doon sa binigay namin this year, at humihingi kami ng report for the P16 billion for this year. Hiningi namin yung breakdown nu’n, we're still waiting for that. We cannot make a judgment really if the program has been a success or not,” the lawmaker said.

(They think that the budget they got this year was huge and we are asking for a report on the P16 billion for this year. We were asking for a breakdown but we're still waiting for that. We cannot make a judgment really if the program has been a success or not.)

“Sa tingin ng mga senador, mas importante yung mga health interventions this [coming] year,” he added.

(The senators think that the funding for the health interventions is more important this coming year.)

'Political security threat'

In a statement, National Security Adviser and NTF-ELCAC vice chair Hermogenes Esperon Jr. noted that the government has spent "almost a trillion" battling COVID-19.

"I hope they understand that we are addressing a 53-year insurgency led by the CPP-NPA-NDF Terrorist triad," he said.

"I also hope that our Senators will take to heart the plight of people in the barangays affected by the prolonged conflict.

While I understand that COVID- 19 is the clear and present danger that we have to address, I hope they recognize the scourge that has caused stunted growth of the countryside and in effect on the nation.  We have spent almost a trillion to combat COVID- 19, let's have the political will to fight the long-standing number one political security threat in our country."

Angara noted that NTF-ELCAC’s budget was not singled out and there are also cuts in the proposed funding for the programs of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) as well as the Department of Transportation.

“I think DPWH got a cut, DOTr also got a cut. Some of the projects have to be phased,” he said.

The decision of the Senate panel was lauded by Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senator Panfilo Lacson.

“I fully support Senator Angara’s position on the reduction of the P28 billion NTF-ELCAC budget. Plus, there is another P2 billion budget also for NTF-ELCAC in the budgets of various agencies which we will move to be deleted,” Drilon said in a text message to reporters.

On the other hand, Lacson said misused funds are “far worse” than unused appropriations.

“If the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee himself asserts that those entrusted to utilize the NTF-ELCAC funds cannot even provide the details on how they spent the same, they have no business asking for more,” Lacson, the sponsor of NTF-ELCAC’s 2021 budget, said.

“That being said, not only do I support the slash in the NTF-ELCAC's proposed budget for 2022, if such misuse was indeed committed—the officials concerned must be made accountable, if not criminally liable,” he added.

Solons seek abolition

Lawmakers from the House of Representatives have called for the abolition of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) after its budget was cut by a Senate committee from P28 billion to P4 billion on Tuesday.

In a statement, ACT Teachers Party-list Representative France Castro commended the move of the Senate, saying that the NTF-ELCAC “did not stop from red-tagging and hurting activists.”

“Mas marapat kung buwagin na lang ito at ilaan ang budget sa pagpopondo ng mga ospital o paghahanda sa ligtas na balik paaralan,” Castro said.

(It would be better to just abolish it and set aside the budget for funding hospitals or preparing for a safe return to school.)

Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate also echoed the same sentiments, saying that “it should be completely defunded and abolished."

"Since the task force's formation, its ballooning generals' pork has been used for patronage, even more especially in this time of elections," Zarate said.

Zarate said the funds that can be saved from the agency can be allocated to the special risk allowance and the active hazard duty funds for healthcare workers and fund the social pension for seniors or to defray the losses for suspending the excise tax on oil.

“These are what our people need in this time of pandemic-aggravated crisis, and not a red-tagging and fake news spreading agency,” he added.

Meanwhile, Gabriela Partylist Representative Arlene Brosas said the fund from the agency can also be allocated to the protective services programs of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to augment standby funds for cash aid and realigned to restore budget cuts in public hospitals next year.

“We call for continued vigilance to keep the NTF-ELCAC budget trimmed as the Senate wraps up its budget deliberations in the coming days,” Brosas added.Richa Noriega/BM/DVM, GMA News