The 14th Congress will open its second regular session tomorrow with a spit-polished image, amid massive renovation efforts for the Marcos-era Batasang Pambansa building, home to the House of Representatives.
Largely cosmetic, the frenzied makeover has secured an initial funding of P200 million from President Arroyo, but once completed will cost taxpayers almost a billion pesos.
About 400 laborers worked round the clock in the last six weeks to rush the prettified House for Arroyo’s eighth State of the Nation Address tomorrow.
To be sure, there is no specific funding in the 2008 budget for the House renovation project launched by Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles, a rabid Arroyo ally and House Speaker of just six months.
The reconstruction binge started with just the need to repair the canopy of the South Wing lobby that was damaged by a powerful bomb blast in November 2007. The initial bill: P9.7 million sourced from funds of the House in February 2008.
In May, Nograles requested and days later secured “assistance from PGMA” in the amount of P200 million to cover the repair, repainting, upgrade, and landscaping of the main and North Wing buildings of the House.
Where Arroyo sourced the money, even the leaders of the House are not sure. Whether the amount is covered by a Special Allocation Release Order (SARO), as it should be under the procurement law, is not clear.
A senior budget official says the agency had not issued a SARO for the House, but House officials said the P200 million is covered by a SARO although they do not know its funding source.
Artemio Adasa Jr., deputy secretary general for operations and chairman of the House Bids and Awards Committee, says the beautification project has two messages: the Nograles House enjoys Arroyo’s full support and represents “new leadership, new face, new radiance.”
“The decision to renovate was done in February… but we anticipated na kung may pera mag-extend, nagkataon, at may target tayong SONA. Instead of gloomy because of the bombing, now we have a vibrant Congress,” Adasa adds.
More, more, more
Already the House had disbursed P99.7 million for the initial structural repair work but wants to spend more this year, even without full appropriations cover.
The House engineering department is already finalizing the general services request for Phase 2 of the project that will cost P110 million.
A new four-story South Wing annex building will rise at a cost of P300 million, courtesy of the Department of Public Works and Highways. (The project was started under Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr., Nograles’ predecessor.)
Two air-conditioned buses with 55-seat capacity were acquired in April 2008 at P5.8 million each, or P11.6 million in all.
Eight laptop units will be awarded in August at a cost of P1.2 million, or a curiously expensive price of P151,950 per unit.
About 30 public comfort rooms worth up to P700,000 each, or at least P200 million in all had been reconstructed.
A total of 135 units of fire extinguishers, including 100 units with 20-pound capacity worth P20,720 each, inclusive of 12 percent value-added tax, or over P2 million, had been purchased.
A P15-million biometric electronic voting system for members of the House will be supported by the “e-government fund” being managed by the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) under the Office of the President.
On drawing board
No absolute amounts have yet been disclosed by the House for other supplies and services already bid out or on the drawing board, notably:
• The recent purchase of two ambulance units for the House medical clinic.
• The hiring of 60 private security guards for six months (July to December 200 to complement the civilian Legislative Security Bureau (LSB) personnel under the House, and a contingent of the Special Action Forces (SAF) of the Philippine National Police.
• The construction of a new building near the Batasan flagpole to house the library and archives, andmuseum of Congress.
• The full replacement of the dilapidated condenser pipes of the main building’s centralized air conditioning system.
Electrical rewiring and sewerage repair of the Batasan complex.
• The replacement of four service elevators, or two units each in the North and South Wings.
• The acquisition of more closed-circuit television surveillance cameras and other security equipment to further secure the complex.
Form, not substance?
It was during the 2007 Christmas break of Congress that Nograles took up the challenge to oust five-time Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.
Backed by lawmakers loyal to Arroyo, Nograles, ex-majority leader of De Venecia, on February 5 took control and pledged to pursue long-overdue reforms for the House of Representatives that has proved consistent in one thing – low scores in its public approval rating.
Six months on the job, Nograles is showing that more than the substance of reforms, he is given to form and big spending.
Apart from his reconstruction efforts, Nograles also recently disbursed additional monetary benefits for about 3,000 House employees, and promised further to raise their salaries and benefits to be at par with employees of the Senate.
Ironically, amid the grandeur of his renovation project, Nograles will convene the second regular session of the House tomorrow with a strong pitch for the values of hard work, simple living, transparency, and integrity in the use of public funds.
An advanced copy of Nograles’ speech obtained by the PCIJ includes these words of the Speaker: “Let us give back to the government and to our people every minute of the hours paid for by our salaries and other compensation in hard work and the performance of our mandated tasks.”
“The worst form of thievery and waste of government resources,” according to Nograles’ speech, “is being paid for not having worked.”
The speech continues: “Let us use resources of government judiciously and wisely. Every centavo must count. Funds must be spent where they are most needed and where they can bring the most benefit to the greater number of our citizens.
“Let us ensure that public funds are used only for public purposes. Let their use be transparent and those allowed to use them, as well as those who authorize their use, be fully accountable to the people.”
Tita Valderama Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
The Philippine Star