POSTSCRIPT / March 3, 2005 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Senators pull a fast one on pork-addicted solons

TOUR LEADER: Ambassador Albert F. del Rosario, our envoy to Washington, has hit upon this brilliant idea of gathering a large tour group of mostly Filipino Americans and personally leading the instant VIPs when they visit the home country this July.

Del Rosario announced during the EDSA celebrations in San Francisco last week that he, together with our consuls-general in the US, would lead the contingent scheduled to visit July 15-19.

At least 550 FilAms and their friends and relatives are expected to join. They can select one of several packages to suit their interest and budget, but a common highlight of their visit is a call on President Arroyo at Malacanang.

The basic package priced at $1,183 per head covers economy round-trip fare on Philippine Airlines and a twin sharing accommodation at the Shangri-la or Peninsula in Makati.

Other amenities of the tour include a visit to Intramuros where participants can watch the newly-opened Light and Sound Show and witness a dramatization of Filipino way of life during the Spanish era.

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SAFE & ATTRACTIVE: Del Rosario said the project aims to show the Philippines to be a safe and attractive global destination.

“Our country has a lot to offer to foreign tourists, both natural and man-made attractions,” he said. “Every Filipino has reasons to be proud of his cultural heritage and confident to tell positive stories about his country among his friends or colleagues.”

He said the out-of-town tours are designed to meet the varied interests of participants, “from historical and cultural landscape of Spanish era in Intramuros to the modern ambiance of Makati, from the amazing sites at the St. Paul underground river in Palawan to the astounding white and powdery sands of Boracay, from the hand-crafted embroidery and wood products of Laguna to the world class products of our export processing zones, and from attending a popular noontime TV show to a visit to Malacanang and meeting President Arroyo.”

If you have friends or relatives in the US who might be interested, advise them to inquire at the RP embassy or consulates general nearest them.

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P.R. NIGHTMARE: Being the son of the President is either a blessing or a curse, never a neutral element, to somebody constantly in the public eye.

To Pampanga Rep. Mikey Arroyo (also known as the father of Michaela, the apple of the eye of a doting President Arroyo), being the President’s son seems to be fraught with recurring PR nightmares.

His latest mauling in media came after he said something sympathetic to his friend, former actor Dennis Roldan, who has been named prominently as a member of a gang that had kidnapped a three-year-old boy.

Mikey was supposed to have said that he knew Dennis well and found it unbelievable, to him at least, that he could do such a sordid thing.

As expected, the ceiling fell on Mickey for speaking out his mind.

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GET THE TRANSCRIPT: With Mikey saying his comments were taken out of context, it would be best for somebody to produce the unedited tape of Mikey’s statement made on TV when he was asked about Roldan.

I think Mikey knew full well the implications and the possible twisting of his remarks, but he went ahead and made them.

He should be given credit for being forthright. He could have said something safe, but still he spoke out his mind. That the Palace would be thrown later into a frantic fireman’s job was probably immaterial to him then.

All of us, including politicians, are supposed speak out of conviction, not convenience. It is one’s duty to follow his conviction.

I doubt if that will be the last we would hear Mikey making remarks not exactly hewing to the studied statements of the Palace.

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A FAST ONE: People were talking yesterday of how the senators supposedly “pulled a fast one” on the congressmen salivating to restore their pork barrel when the Third Chamber, the bicameral conference committee, meets to finalize the national budget.

Twenty senators sprung the surprise Tuesday when, with no objection or abstention, they unanimously approved without touching anything in the P907.56-billion national budget that was approved by the House of Representatives.

It was the first time in the history of Congress that the two chambers passed the same version of the budget bill.

With no more conflict in the House and the Senate versions of the 2005 General Appropriations Act, there is suddenly no more need for a conference committee to smooth out differences and accept last-minute insertions.

Word had it that the congressmen were waiting for the haggling in the conference committee meeting to insert their favorite pork items — of course with counterpart largesse for consenting senators.

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BUDGET DELAY: Officially, most senators were talking of the need to pass the long-delayed budget to show all and sundry, especially foreign creditors, that the country is on track.

Senate President Franklin Drilon noted that we have been operating in the past 14 months on a carry-over budget, that of 2003, because of Congress’ failure last year to pass a new one. The same carryover of the old budget happened the year before.

Senators wanted to scrutinize the intelligence funds in the budget, Drilon said, but “we thought the greater national interest would dictate that we should immediately operate the new budget.”

The enrolled copy of the budget bill will go to President Arroyo this month for approval. There should not be any problem since the measure is substantially the same budget proposed by the Office of the President.

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PORK ISSUE: There were earlier reports that congressmen were waiting for a chance in the usual conference committee meetings to restore pork barrel amounting to P200 million per senator and P70 million per congressman.

That would mean a total of P21.1 billion — P16.5 billion for congressmen P4.6 billion for 23 senators. Drilon and senators Panfilo Lacson and Alfredo Lim have announced, however, that that they would not touch their pork barrel, if any were appropriated.

Some senators were peeved when congressmen on the conference committee led by Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr., appropriations committee chairman, refused in the past three weeks to sit down with their Senate counterparts led by Sen. Manuel Villar, finance committee chairman.

That has contributed to the collective decision in the Senate to just adopt the House version of the budget and be done with it.

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VILLAR’S RATIONALE: The speech of Villar appealing for the immediate approval of the budget in exactly the same form it came out of the other chamber is short and stark:

“The budget is very important. It is necessary for any country for its efficient operations. It is necessary to fund the development of any nation just like the Philippines.

“It is the only piece of legislation that the Constitution mandates. It is our duty to pass a national budget.

“It is already March and the government is still operating under a twice-reenacted budget. It is very difficult to explain to the people why we are still operating under a twice-reenacted budget.

“But the truth is, the bicameral conference has not been convened. I appeal that we must approve the budget now.

“We owe it to our country to have a budget as soon as possible. Because of the fiscal crisis, people are expecting us to immediately end this budget discussion and help address the fiscal crisis.

“And so, I would like to move that we adopt House Bill 3154 without amendments.”

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VAT ISSUES: The budget skirmishes took place alongside the debate over the measure amending the Value-Added Tax law, principally raising it from its present 10 percent rate to 12 percent.

While the House is for raising VAT to 12 percent, there have been mounting objections among senators.

With the Senate appearing as a stumbling block to the final passage of the national budget, some House leaders were reportedly using that negative point to pressure senators into agreeing to the House version of the VAT bill.

Andaya had told Villar that the House contingent in the conference committee was waiting for the approval of the bill lifting VAT exemptions before convening the conference on the budget.

But there was word that the real reason for the delay was that congressmen wanted the VAT bill approved before working for the restoration of their pork barrel allocations.

Villar apparently did not buy Andaya’s explanation for the House panel’s refusal to hold the bicameral conference on the budget.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 3, 2005)

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