Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Was Secretary Ona let go because Usec Janet Garin, former staunch RH advocate in the House, would be more determined to push the RH Law into full implementation? 2015 Budget passed by House vote of 172 vs. 18, without a single cut and with "re-defination" of "savings, plus three-volumes "Errata" as high as several rulers. INC makes its feelings known to solons: leave Judiciary budget alone.

Secretary (on leave)  Enrique T. Ona of DOH    

Many speculations are swirling about the President’s move to make Health Secretary Enrique “Ike” Ona go “on leave” from his post and appoint Undersecretary Janet Garin as “acting Secretary.” These stories get “curiouser” by the day.

One story quoted Usec Garin and DOH sources as saying that Ona went on leave as he suffers from complications of an allergy to hair dye, while another report quoted P-Noy as saying he asked Ona to go on a month-long leave to enable him to explain the vaccination issue, and that his return to DOH’s helm would be dependent "on what his report would contain." The undisguised implication is that there’s some anomaly about the vaccines. 

But if that's the case, other secretaries and heads of offices in this administration ought to have gone on leave much earlier as they have been in the thick of corruption issues, e.g., DBM Secretary Butch Abad, Agriculture Secretary Prospero Alcala, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman, PNP Chief Alan Purisima, etc. 

That vaccination report does not wash, for to this day not one of the Aquino officials has resigned.


Another story says that P-Noy was irked that Ona kept pestering him to increase by P500 million the budget of the Tropical Medicine Research Center---a last minute budget entry meant to tackle head-on the Ebola threat. But this doesn’t wash either, for the 3 huge volumes of “Errata” on the 2015 General Appropriations Bill, submitted by the DBM to the House of Representatives the very day of  its voting on this bill, contained so many pahabol from various agencies of government---and yet DBM included them all. 

If this report is true that Ona wanted a pahabol for the research center, it’s perfectly understandable as the dreaded Ebola only burst upon the world in the past two months. Why should P-Noy get peeved when he should be thankful that his top health official is being militant about the possible pandemic. 


Speculation is hardening that Secretary Ona won’t be returning to DOH and Garin will take over; House insiders noted that she already did act like the boss during hearings on the DOH budget.  So what’s the real story behind Ona’s replacement by Garin?

The political angle is being raised by political pundits. Prior to her appointment to DOH, Garin was a three-term representative of Iloilo, and closely related to the powerful Petilla clan of Leyte that includes Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla. Hence, pundits are now tying her post as eventual DOH Secretary to the coming elections, where the DOH with its direct access to the grassroots and its P102.178 billion budget, could play a critical role in the 2016 elections that P-Noy and the Liberal Party want so badly to win, if he and top allies are to escape possible prosecution for violations in DAP.   


There’s another angle, though, that pundits have failed to explore. Garin was, next to former Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, the most assiduous and passionate supporter of the RH bill pending in Congress over the years. Both chambers voted overwhelmingly for the bill in December 2012, even though the subsequent SC ruling on the RH law displayed aspects that both anti and pro-RH claim as partial victory for them. 

But now, it’s possible that the Obama administration, certain UN agencies and giant foreign pharmaceutical companies are now applying tremendous pressure on the P-Noy administration---which went all out for the RH bill to the point of Cabinet members camping out in the House lounge during votings---to implement what has been ruled by SC as implementable. Thus, it’s quite possible that while Secretary Ona religiously attended the SC hearings on the RH bill, he might not have been as fanatical as Usec Garin in supporting its full implementation. Many view Ona as a professional, not a P-Noy ideologue.


Now, when one considers that Director-General Kenneth Hartigan-Go of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the office that will directly scrutinize the contraceptives that will flood the market, has quietly resigned effective Oct. 1, then the rise of Usec Garin to the DOH’s helm becomes no idle speculation. 

Moreover, it’s significant that the FDA has asked in recent weeks some 10 pharmaceutical companies to submit for re-evaluation some 50 brands of contraceptives they manufacture---in accordance with the spirit of the SC’s ruling, doubtless to protect women consumers. The speculation as to why Dr. Hartigan-Go, who is a highly-respected professional, resigned thickens. Did he anticipate tough problems ahead with the implementation of the RH law?


The General Appropriations Bill of 2015, amounting to P2.606 trilion, was overwhelmingly approved by the House a few days ago with just 18 out of the 290 members opposing it---seven from the “Makabayan Bloc” of left-wing militants that included Carlos Isagani Zarate and Senior Deputy Minority Leader Neri Colmenares, Jonathan de la Cruz of Abakada party-list, Antonio Tinio of Alliance of Concerned Teachers, and Rep. Joselito Atienza of Buhay, and nine district representatives, among them Toby Tiangco of Navotas, Lino Cayetano of Taguig and Jose Tejada of North Cotabato. The tiny minority put up a heroic fight vs. the 2015 Budget but to no avail. 

The 272 other House members caved in and passed it WITHOUT A SINGLE CUT. Moreover, the extra three huge volumes of the 2015 Budget, titled “Errata,” from DBM---the first such monstrosity from any administration ever---was delivered to the House the same day as the voting, thus the representatives passed them without even taking a look at the "Errata."


The P2.606 trillion 2015 Budget is already on second reading in the Senate and predictably both versions would be reconciled in a jiffy, so that P-Noy should have it in his pocket by the time Congress goes into Christmas break on Dec. 15. Passage of this budget by both chambers indicates a couple of things: Aquino’s near-total control of Congress and the solons’ fear of being isolated from manna from heaven in an election year.

Many other things are upsetting about it, such as that it contains “presidential pork” in the form of a lump-sum appropriation that former National Treasurer Leonor Briones estimates could come up to possibly half of the P2.606T budget. Unprogrammed fund for the President alone comes up to P477 billion, which means he could spend it any which way he chooses---unlike programmed and line-item ones which have to go where they are appropriated, or one could get into trouble with COA.  Lump-sum appropriations are a resurrection of the DAP that was struck down by the SC.  

Another objectionable fact was the redefinition by admin-controlled solons of “savings” in the executive branch, which could come from “unobligated” or “unfilled” positions or from projects that have been dropped, and all of which could be collected AS EARLY AS EVERY QUARTER---in direct defiance of the SC’s position in its July 1, 2014 ruling on DAP, that savings may be collected at year-end only.  Recall that one controversial move of the administration was the early impounding of “savings” worth P10 billion, that should have gone into P10,000 incentive bonuses for each of the over 70,000 public school teachers across the country.

The 2015 budget deserves the opprobrium of being an “election budget.”


One item, though, that remained virtually untouched in the 2015 budget was the funding for the judiciary, the third branch of government. During the deliberations on the judiciary’s budget, the SC was represented by Justices Bienvenido Reyes (who was the second appointee of P-Noy in the High Court) and Diosdado Peralta, and the Deputy Court Administrator. Among the solons who shepherded the judiciary’s budget were neophyte Terry Ridon and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez.

But what truly helped protect that fund was the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) which sent an unequivocal message to leave that budget, especially the Judicial Development Fund (JDF) that goes into manpower development down the line in the judiciary, ALONE. Among the INC people who maintained a high profile in those hearings was colorful lawyer Ferdinand Topacio, unmistakable with his INC pin. 

The JDF, created by the Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1980 and reinforced by the Judiciary Act, was the object of power-lusting by some solons, encouraged by ill-disguised threats by President Aquino (who was quoted as saying that he only wants to stay in power longer in order to clip the SC’s powers), but the INC made its stand known. The locally elected representatives let that budget be.

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