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ARMM defends budget, proves mettle in house committee hearing

MANILA – Following a budget briefing last week, officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) began defending the proposed regional budget for 2017 in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

ARMM officials presented the budget in a pre-plenary hearing led by Rep. Mohamad Khalid Dimaporo, vice chairperson for the committee on appropriations. Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman wasted no time as he addressed the observations and recommendations of the national Commission on Audit (COA) regarding the ARMM budget pegged at P40.573 billion, the biggest budget proposal in the history of the region.

“We acknowledge the COA report and we have a response for every comment on our budget,” said Hataman. He also noted that the regional government has already complied with the audit observation of the COA.

Coordination and accountability

Hataman noted the region’s policy recommendations regarding the disparity between the regional agencies and their national counterparts when it comes to keeping track of the realities on ground. He cited the disparity between the national Department of Education (DepEd)’s Learner Information System (LIS) and the regional DepEd’s actual headcount (AHC) as an example.

This disparity, Hataman said, translates to a mismatch between the needs of the region national DepEd’s allocation for teachers and school buildings. “If the budget allocation for teachers and buildings in the ARMM depends on the national LIS and the ARMM has no recommendatory power, this leads to a problem for which the ARMM is held liable and yet has no jurisdiction over,” Hataman noted.

“We need a policy to correct this disparity, and it is within the power of the policy makers here present,” he added.

Transparency through innovation

The existing road network and infrastructure system of the ARMM is a source of pride for the regional government. “The DPWH we inherited from past administrations had no clear data on road networks,” Hataman said.

“This is why we decided to hire consultants and, with the help of the regional Department on Public Works and Highways (DPWH-ARMM), studied our existing road networks and made sure to update our database every time we begin and finish a new project,” he added.

The e-ARMM database of DPWH-ARMM consolidates all existing information and is updated regularly using geotags, drone technology, and real time updates from the ground.

“We use the technology available to us not only so we can keep track of our progress, but so that the public can access the information and work with the government in making sure that our infrastructure is sound. That’s how transparent the ARMM is now,” said Don Mustapha Loong, DPWH-ARMM secretary.

Poverty alleviation

Akbayan representative Tomasito Villarin was first to interpellate the ARMM officials on the proposed budget and questioned the persistence of poverty in the region despite the annual increase in budget for the ARMM in recent years.

“The context is very different in the ARMM and the prevalence of conflict bears heavily on our development agenda,” said Hataman.

He then explained that the regional government has consistently allocated the recent increases in the regional budget to capital outlay, including programs such as the Apat na Dapat program which are designed specifically to uplift the poorest of the poor in the ARMM.

“We have three main strategies in addressing poverty in the ARMM which includes strengthening our rural economy, developing our infrastructure, and supporting the peace process while helping to address the roots of conflict in the region,” Hataman said.

The governor also emphasized the role of the local government units in addressing poverty.

Local governance

“The local government units are key actors because they are the ones at the frontlines,” Hataman said. He pointed out that local government units under the ARMM have a combined internal revenue allocation of at least P15 billion annually.

“Some LGUs are not using their IRA to provide basic social services to their constituents which include repair and maintenance of school buildings such as the ones in Sulu,” Hataman said. “This is stipulated in the Local Government Code, along with the provision that the 20% development fund of their IRA can be utilized specifically for anti-poverty measures.”

Hataman made an appeal to the LGUs to take action. “We in the ARMM cannot do this alone; they cannot just rely on the regional government. The LGUs themselves need to utilize their IRA if we want to help the poorest of the poor among our constituents,” he said.

Hataman also reiterated the role of congress as policy makers in finding solutions for these issues.

Challenge accepted

Kusug Tausug representative Shernee Tan raised several questions during the hearing regarding the ARMM’s handling of previously allocated funds. She cited supposed “irregularities,” including an unfinished road project which turned out to be funded by the national DPWH through Region 9 and a school building she tagged as “substandard” but was actually an old building due for repair and was not among those built by the DPWH-ARMM in recent years.

“How can you propose an ARMM budget when your past budget is still unaccounted for?” she asked.

Anak Mindanao representative Makmod Mending Jr. took Tan to account for her line of questioning. “That is a very serious allegation,” Mending said. “We know that the ARMM has already submitted itself to an audit by the COA and has taken action following the audit recommendations, so how can you say that the previous ARMM budget is unaccounted for?”

Hataman also responded strongly to Tan’s accusation. “If you accuse us of irregularities, feel free to provide proof and plead your case to the proper authorities,” Hataman said. “I challenge you to a special audit accounting for all the projects and funding in the ARMM and its constituent provinces so we can see where the money really went, and I challenge the province of Sulu especially to undergo the same.”

“Yes, let no one be exempt,” Tan said.

The province of Sulu has the biggest spike in poverty throughout the ARMM. As figures in other provinces improved, poverty incidence in the said province more than doubled within the last three years. Tan is the daughter of former Sulu vice governor Sakur Tan who lost his bid for the regional governor seat in the ARMM against Hataman last May. Hataman, following a landslide win in the recent elections, now serves his second term as ARMM regional governor. (Bureau of Public Information)

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