What’s up with Sara Duterte’s confidential funds?

Stoically she defended the proposed 2023 budget of her office at the hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations as though there was no ongoing public furor over her fondness for confidential funds. It was typical brash and nonchalant Sara Duterte.

She wanted a P500 million confidential fund for the Office of the Vice President. Granted.

She wanted a separate P150 million confidential fund for the Department of Education which she also heads. Pointedly questioned about it by Arlene Brosas (Gabriela), France Castro (ACT Teachers) and Raoul Manuel (Kabataan), she just said matter-of-factly that security and surveillance work – never before part of DepEd’s functions because why would the department need money for this when there is an acute classroom shortage that was not addressed during her father’s term? – was necessary to handle “specific issues and challenges.” Granted again.

Like the case when her father, former president Rodrigo Duterte, was in charge and when Sara herself was Davao city mayor, the next six years will be an annual cavalcade of humongous confidential funds that just keeps growing. 

Confidential funds are spent confidentially. They can also be misused confidentially. And the people are not confident.

For her first year in office alone, Sara will have a total of P650 million in funds that need no receipts to liquidate, no financial reports to submit to the Commission on Audit, nothing. And we will never know how she spends it.

What’s with the special desire for secrecy? Listen to her talk: basic education has a direct link to national security.

But swiftly, the Committee on Appropriations terminated the deliberations on Sara’s budget as a matter of courtesy to her office.  Except for Brosas, Castro and Manuel — who we should be proud of as genuine and disinterested fiscalizers — the rest of the legislators succumbed as members of the Committee on Silence or the more infamous Comite de Absuelto. No serious interpellation from them were heard.

There better not be, they figured.

In six years, they will elect Sara Duterte as the next president of the Philippines and vengeance from her – part of her trademark — is the last thing these lawmakers need to get re-elected and hold on to their pork-filled purse strings. Forget checks and balances. This is all about the economics of political, dynastic and personal survival. Democracy is a corpse of an institution in the Philippines.

This is also about Duterte tyranny. This early, Sara can begin playing the card of heir apparent. She may not care if she appears to be puffed up; what is important is the way she reads her stars for 2028. Nothing must get in the way in her winning that presidency. Not a few believe that these confidential funds will find their way in Sara’s campaign kitty when she shoots for the country’s government post in six years.

Why not? It happens. It is done on a grand scale in the Philippines.

In fact, there was something else in that hearing that speaks much of the DepEd’s priorities. “There is zero budget,” DepEd undersecretary Ernesto Gaviola replied when asked about special education for Learners with Disabilities (LWDs).

Just last March, under the watch of Sara’s father, a law was passed that guarantees free early and basic education to learners with special needs. Republic Act 11650 provides these students access to the formal school system through the creation of Inclusive Learning Resource Centers  in every city and municipality in the country.

“We requested P560 million for 2023, but it’s zero budget,” Gaviola told the Committee.

Elsewhere in the world, educators have long noted that the disproportionate rate of poverty of persons with disabilities against those with no impairment is critical. The United Nations regional hub, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, states: “Persons with disabilities are extremely underrepresented in political structures and decision-making processes.”

But Sara Duterte, who has no expertise in national public education, just ensured the exclusion of LWDs by prioritizing confidential funds to be spent for items and in ways that only she will know.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.