MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang is unperturbed by threats of a “judicial revolt” in the light of President Aquino’s refusal to give in to the request of the judiciary for a higher budget in 2011.
In separate interviews, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda declared that they could do nothing about the budget proposal, especially since the judiciary has kept secret the real amount of its Judicial Development Fund (JDF).
“Sa ngayon (At the moment), we are completely blind (about the JDF status),” Abad told radio dzMM.
Apart from the JDF, Abad said another source of income for the judiciary is the Special Allowances for Justices and Judges (SAJJ).
He said the funds should be “subject to Audit” by the Commission on Audit.
“We just don’t know if they have a report on the SAJJ and JDF,” Abad said.
In his proposed P1.645-trillion 2011 national budget, the President is seeking P14.3 billion for the judiciary, an amount that is P1 billion more than this year’s P13.3 billion.
Court administrator and Supreme Court (SC) spokesman Midas Marquez said the judiciary wanted a P27.1-billion budget for 2011.
Secretary for Operations Herminio Coloma of the Presidential Communications
Office earlier stressed that the absence of capital outlays in the judiciary’s proposed P27.1-billion budget was one of the reasons why it had to be cut.
The DBM informed Coloma that the maintenance and operating expenses for 2011 were “at the same level as 2010.”
“There are also non-recurring capital outlays. If these are non-recurring, it means that the capital equipment was already acquired and so it is possible that the capital outlay figure would be lower this year,” Coloma told Palace reporters.
“I hope Justice Marquez didn’t exactly mean judicial revolt,” Lacierda said, referring to the strongly worded statement issued by the SC the other day hinting at a “revolt” and “justice to ground to a halt.”
“I am not aware of that, and I am not so sure that they can do that,” Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. told reporters when told of Marquez’s warning.
“I am not calling it a threat, it is their point of view. Maybe they just wanted to pay attention to (their budget problems),” he said.
The Palace also wanted the judiciary under Chief Justice Renato Corona to “shed light on these JDF funds.”
“There’s enough money from the judiciary. I think they have enough budget to source that from. The judiciary fund has not been touched. Our money is very limited, we have to prioritize,” Lacierda added.
Lacierda and Abad also stressed that any increases in the salaries and allowances of judges and justices should be sourced from the JDF.
Abad pointed out the executive department had been allocating P165 million every year from 2004 to 2007 to fund the increase in the take-home pay of magistrates.
Open to SC wish
Despite President Aquino’s rejection of a bigger budget for the judiciary, the House of Representatives is open to allocating more money for the SC and the rest of the judiciary on top of the P1 billion that he has already allowed for 2011.
“Oh yes, we can look into it and make adjustments. But they should not play mind games,” Cavite Rep. Joseph Emilio Abaya, appropriations committee chairman, told reporters yesterday.
He was commenting on the strongly worded statement of the SC warning of a judicial revolt if there are no sufficient funds allocated for the wages and allowances of judges and justices, and the upkeep of the courts.
Abaya said he was surprised that the high tribunal had issued such a statement.
“I was quite surprised. I am sure their clamor for more funds is not new, but I never heard the Supreme Court writing a strongly worded letter. Maybe it’s a game, if you make noise, you’ll be heard. I hope we’ll just talk as co-equal bodies, instead of playing mind games, which might not achieve the goals you want. I would rather talk than play mind games,” he said.
Abaya, a former Navy officer and a party mate of the President in the Liberal Party, said his panel has asked the SC to estimate how much it could save from the 25 percent vacancies in the judiciary.
“We requested a peso value because that is a leeway that they could have. They have the power to realign that and put it into items which they think should be funded. If that is not enough, then we could sit down with them and the DBM to thresh things out,” he added.
Asked where they would get the additional money in case they decide to increase the judiciary’s budget, Abaya said: “That is the delicate balancing act, because, as you know, there is a constitutional ceiling and the President has said we should not tinker with debt servicing funds.”
He said any increase given to one agency would be taken from another and would mean suppression of some programs of the office from which the funds were taken.
“I don’t know if they are comfortable with that idea – we say let’s increase your funds but you identify a program in another department like health or social welfare and development that you could suppress. They should responsibly look into it and consider this thing,” he said.
The judiciary ranks 10th among the departments with huge allocations, the biggest of which was given to the Department of Education, which will have P207 billion in 2011.
Former Arroyo budget chief and now Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr., who chairs a subcommittee that is in charge of the judiciary budget, said granting the judges’ and justices’ demand for P900 million in additional allowances “is not a simple matter.”
Andaya said members of the judiciary have been getting allowances equivalent to 100 percent of their salaries under Republic Act 9227, or the Judiciary Reform Act of 2004.
“They have been receiving the 100 percent since 2004. The law provides that the allowances would cover future salary adjustments that the government would give its personnel. So when we had a four-year adjustment program in 2008, they wanted to be covered by this and at the same time enjoy their allowances,” he said.
He added that granting the SC’s request for an additional P900 million for allowances would mean allowing an increase for similarly situated quasi-judicial agencies like the Office of the Solicitor General, National Labor Relations Commission and Public Attorney’s Office.
For his part, Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said he supports the judiciary’s request.
“I think we should give them more not only for allowances but for the upkeep of courts. In Cagayan de Oro City, our judges are housed in a dilapidated building. They do not even have computers,” he said.
Belmonte said that to his knowledge, the SC’s budget woes started when the previous administration drew funds for the salary increases for judges and justices from their own allowances. The allowances are tax-free but not the portions moved to finance salary increases.
Belmonte also assailed Marquez for announcing high-profile cases against the Aquino administration pending before the High Tribunal.
“We should not connect cases pending with claims for increased budget,” he said. “That is not good for the country.”
“To avoid a constitutional crisis, the Judiciary-Executive-Legislative Advisory Council must be convened and thresh out the matters here,” Andaya said.
“Face-to-face dialogue. And not the Palace, Congress and the Supreme Court negotiating through the press,” he said.
“We are just starting the budget process and we should of course try to consider their point of view. We’ll try to think about what should we do. Anyway, the budget is still pending. We hope to start sponsoring it at the end of the month,” Belmonte said.
“We cannot add anything to anybody’s (budget) without reducing it from somewhere. That is the case and we just have to evaluate all the options that is available to us,” he pointed out.
No to budget cut
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, senators Joker Arroyo, Francis Escudero, and Francis Pangilinan are against the move of the House committee on appropriations to cut the judiciary’s budget for next year to only P14.3 billion.
Enrile vowed that once the proposed budget reaches the Senate, he would try to finds ways to have it raised despite a rule prohibiting Congress from increasing the President’s budget program.
“We cannot increase the budget of the President but we will see. We’ll probably prune some other areas to augment the offices that would require augmentation if there is a need. But the people who prepared that budget must have considered the requirements of the judiciary,” Enrile said.
“I myself don’t know and understand the justification of the DBM in making those cuts. It is now the priority of government to give dole-outs through the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) which got a 120 percent increase instead of ensuring that justice is rendered,” Escudero said.
“Abad should explain the basis and reason for this,” he added.
“You know there are three branches of government, the executive, the legislative, and judiciary. The judiciary is getting less than one percent. I think it’s less than what we got here, in other departments. So I think judiciary should get what it asked for,” Arroyo said.
“I am for giving judiciary also as much budget as it needs. Otherwise, we’ll have a continuing, defective judiciary,” he added.
Sen. Edgardo Angara, vice-chairman of the Senate finance committee, said “it’s really injurious to the administration of justice that you starve the judiciary with funds.”
“The judiciary right now is suffering from lack of personnel as well as poor facilities for lack of funding. It’s true that we allocated some money coming out of the collection of the SC but that’s not sufficient because that’s used mostly for salary adjustment, improvement of facilities, the building of new courts and salas,” Angara said.
Pangilinan, President Aquino’s colleague in the LP, said slashing the judiciary’s budget would make it harder for the government to make good its promise to fight corruption.
“We have worked hard to get the judiciary budget to a modest one percent of the national budget. If we are to fulfill our vision of a modernized justice system, we have to at the very least not go below that one percent,” Pangilinan said.
“We need to create more courts to provide the public swift dispensation of justice. Research shows that the ideal ratio should be one judge for every 10,000 people. But in our current situation, we only have one judge for every 50,000 people,” Pangilinan said.
“The judiciary is a co-equal branch of the government. We need to appropriate much needed funds to this branch of government if we are to fulfill our goal of having a modernized judiciary,” he said.
“If the nation is likened to a computer, the judicial system is the hard drive, and its natural resources, its educated workforce, and economic investments are its software,” he pointed out.
“No amount of the latest software made available will matter if the hard drive is not effectively in place,” he added
Delon Porcalla, Philippine Star